Why are Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith poles apart in popularity stakes?
Why are Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith poles apart in popularity stakes?

Why Cronk crushes Smith in popularity stakes

Craig Bellamy made an interesting point this week when discussing what he views as a lack of respect shown towards Cameron Smith.

The Melbourne coach said he didn't think Smith would be viewed as the villain "if he had played 400 games in a rugby league state".

Yet I scratched my head at this comment because Cooper Cronk played the majority of his career in Melbourne but was never viewed this way.

 

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Maybe I'm missing something but is the difference this simple: Cronk has always played the game in what most would deem the right spirit?

And while Cronk will never be accused of using questionable tactics to win at all costs, that still hasn't stopped him from owning a record no other halfback of the modern era can match.

Which is the statistic I thought worth discussing ahead of Saturday's preliminary final between Melbourne and the Sydney Roosters, when the two former teammates go head-to-head for the final time.

While everyone agrees Smith will one day stand alongside the game's Immortals, where is Cronk's rightful position on the all-time halfback honour role?

Think of all the great rugby league halfbacks going back to the start of the State of Origin era, that's 40 years of footy.

We're talking greats of the game: Peter Sterling, Allan Langer, Ricky Stuart, Geoff Toovey, Andrew Johns, Brett Kimmorley and Johnathan Thurston.

 

Allan Langer (C) rates as one of the great halfbacks in recent times.
Allan Langer (C) rates as one of the great halfbacks in recent times.

Throw them all in and Cronk still comes out on top when it comes to winning percentage, according to Fox Sports Stats.

In Cronk's 370 NRL games he has won 262 for a 70.8 per cent strike rate, while that climbs to 72.3 per cent when Cronk was at starting halfback.

In comparison, Langer finished next best with a 69.9 per cent win rate, Stuart 66.4, Toovey 63.7, Sterling 63.3, Johns 61.7, Brett Kimmorley 53.3 and Thurston 53.2.

Some might argue Cronk would be the least naturally gifted playmaker on this list.

 

How they rank - the best halfbacks of the past 40 years.
How they rank - the best halfbacks of the past 40 years.

But for mine, that is not a knock on Cronk. Rather, it's about the biggest rap you can give the bloke.

Because right from when he started out playing off the bench for the Storm and looked to be more a dummy half than a halfback, Cronk got nothing for nothing.

But he was ultimately rewarded through sheer hard work, determination and desire.

That is what earned him a place alongside the greatest No.7s to ever lace on a boot, and he did it while always playing with a deep respect for his own teammates and the opposition.

Like all the great halfbacks, Cronk was also tough.

Yet because of his squeaky clean image it seems he rarely gets the credit for just how tough he is.

 

What makes Cooper Cronk great is his incredible work ethic off the field. Picture: Brett Costello
What makes Cooper Cronk great is his incredible work ethic off the field. Picture: Brett Costello

Every week he goes out knowing he is going to get absolutely hammered but never once have I seen him shirk his load to protect himself at the expense of his team.

Like in last year's grand final when he played with a busted shoulder that Trent Robinson later labelled the bravest thing he had ever seen on a footy field.

As for his leadership, when Cronk first signed with the Roosters many wondered what impact it would potentially have on Cronk's legacy if he did not succeed in Sydney.

That didn't scare him away; it inspired him.

He could have gone to a weaker club and dined out on his reputation for his final seasons.

But not only did he guide the Roosters to a premiership, he now has them primed to play in another grand final if they can get over his former club on Saturday.

Cronk has enhanced his legacy since joining the Sydney Roosters. Picture: Getty
Cronk has enhanced his legacy since joining the Sydney Roosters. Picture: Getty

I asked Nick Politis about Cronk's influence this week and the Roosters chairman didn't want to get into a deep conversation because, understandably, the club is hoping there is a final chapter to be written.

Yet when Politis speaks privately about Cronk you get the feeling it is one of his proudest topics in all his years in the game.

And Politis has only known Cronk for a couple of years.

Like Cronk, Politis and Robinson deserve huge credit for the way this story has unfolded.

They took a massive gamble bringing in Cronk over the top of Mitchell Pearce, but they did it because they thought it was best for the team.

What could’ve been... Mitchell Pearce (L) could’ve hung around to learn from Cronk. Picture: AAP
What could’ve been... Mitchell Pearce (L) could’ve hung around to learn from Cronk. Picture: AAP

Politis never wanted Pearce to leave but rather stay and learn from Cronk, in hope Cronk's influence would make Pearce a better player.

We will never know how that might have panned out for Pearce.

Yet look at what it has done for Cronk's halves partner Luke Keary, who has now emerged a superstar in his own right.

Win or lose this weekend, Cronk's legacy is secure.

And even though Cronk spent the majority of his career in Melbourne, it's been an absolute pleasure to watch him play.