Exclusive: Nigel Wall
Maroons halfback Cooper Cronk knows the pressure is on him to deliver a benchmark kicking game in Wednesday night’s State of Origin decider, with the Blues’ back three comprising three specialist fullbacks – believed to be an Origin first – including the NRL’s two most punishing returners of clearing kicks.
The inclusion of Brett Morris, who has filled the custodian role for St George Illawarra in 2012, alongside Jarryd Hayne and Brett Stewart provides the Blues with a potent three-pronged attack from the back of the field. New South Wales coach Ricky Stuart will be calling on the trio of elusive speedsters to exploit any deficiencies in the Queensland kicking game.
While NSW emerged with a 16-12 home win in Origin II to keep the series alive heading to Suncorp Stadium, Cronk’s deep and accurate kicking game offered the Blues’ back three few opportunities, restricting them to just 101 metres all night (Queensland meantime cranked out 273 metres).
Cronk says placement rather than a reliance on depth will be the key to dominance with the boot.
“Absolutely – personally I think it’s a tough stat to gauge… I mean you can kick a lot of metres but boot it straight down the throat of the back threes and they’ll make huge gains,” he told NRL.com today.
Cronk added it didn’t matter how much preparation and planning he put into his kicking game during Origin camp, with success boiling down to the spur of the moment.
“On a technical basis there are certain things we look at in preparation, like elevation and other things, and we work on that – but once we’re on the field it’s all about instinct and coming up with the right kick at the right time,” he said.
“I mean on Wednesday I’ll look up and there’ll be three fullbacks down the other end! So you just have to trust your judgment and getting the kicks in the right spot will be crucial.
“That’s why we have to get it just right, and make sure our kick-chase is spot on – especially seeing they’ve drafted Brett Morris who is one of the best returners of kicks in the game.”
NRL Stats reveal Morris is currently powering to 13.1 metres per carry of a kick return, the second-biggest yield by any player in the NRL in 2012. Hayne ranks a close third, carving 12.3 metres per carry per match, with Brett Stewart adding 10 metres every time he fields a kick. Combined, the trio average 204 kick-return metres each week for their clubs in the NRL.
(On the plus side for Queensland, Greg Inglis leads the way for kick returns in 2012, averaging 14 metres each run – although he averages just 44 metres per game.)
Cronk said taking on more of the Maroons’ kicking following the retirement of former key kicker Darren Lockyer was no great burden.
“It’s fine, it comes with the territory – I’m used to it at club level,” he said. “We have a good combination of kickers among the three of us [with Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith] and we just need to get it right.”
Cronk added Queensland would not be scared of succeeding come Wednesday night and he did not feel pressured to play conservatively with so much at stake. Indeed, the brilliant ad-lib plays he triggers for the table-topping Storm could just as easily kick into gear on Wednesday night.
“We’re not tied down by Mal at all, there are no restrictions on what we do,” he enthused.
“He encourages us to express ourselves and compete at the best of our abilities. That won’t change for this game and knowing he has that faith in you gives you a lot of confidence.”
The 88-kilogram No.7 is aware he’ll be spotted again by the big New South Wales forwards but dismisses it is part and parcel of the make-up of rugby league. Cronk knows the importance of making a defensive statement, especially tackling on his try line. He missed nine tackles in game one – the most by any player in a game this series – but showed grit in game two by not missing a single tackle attempt, felling 20 Blues players and making six one-on-one tackles, the most by any player on ANZ Stadium.
“It’s always tough when you’ve got a bigger guy running at you – you just have to do whatever is required, do your best, to stop a more physical opponent… put yourself on the line,” he said.
Asked which NSW player in particular he feared most, especially given the return of rampaging back-rower Tony Williams who will hammer the same side of the field he’ll defend, he replied: “If you’re talking about an individual, I don’t look at it that way. It’s not about fear… I look at it from an individual perspective.
“It’s about looking forward to testing yourself against the best rather than fearing any one player in the opposition line-up. If you perform to your best things tend to take care of themselves.”
And what else did Queensland have to do to extend their reign to seven straight series?
“Score more points!” he laughed. “Our defence has to hold up and we need to ask a few more questions of them in attack.”
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