The phone call that saved a career

Robbie Kearns on the Storm's line-up

It wasn’t one of the Storm’s countless representative stars or the cosmopolitan Melbourne lifestyle the Storm dangled in front of Brett Finch that attracted him to join the club in April this year.

It was Cooper Cronk, and one phone call was all it took to convince Finch to move south to the Victorian capital.

Cronk and Finch have struck up an acquaintance over the past few years and Storm coach Craig Bellamy asked his halfback to give the former Eel a call to put his mind at ease about switching to the tight-knit 2007 premiers.

“The idea came from Craig but basically I thought if I was in that position and not knowing too many people a phone call wouldn’t go astray,” Cronk explains.

“I think he’s happy he made that decision and knows what he wants to do and achieve. And he’s a good bloke to boot.”

Finch and Cronk’s passing acquaintance has bloomed into a friendship that is benefiting the Storm this season. For the first time since Scott Hill retired in 2006 Melbourne have a bona fide five-eighth wearing the no.6 jersey. Finch and Parramatta parted ways after just four rounds earlier this year, and the 28-year-old accepted a huge pay cut to join the Storm.

It was a gamble in Finch’s oft-maligned career, but Cronk’s reassurance was the final tick of approval he needed.

“Cooper actually rang me at the time and said ‘the boys are really keen to have you here’ and for him to do that was great. I certainly jumped at the chance to come down here and I’m very grateful for being given the opportunity,” Finch says.

“Also I knew they were an extremely successful club so that was another big positive and I guess when you’re given a chance to be a part of a club like this you want to take it.”

Melbourne have experienced a slight slide this season from their previously lofty heights of leading the competition this close to the finals, but it was bound to happen after so much success. The salary cap has forced many of their grand final stars to depart, and Finch’s signing has offset that.

For Cronk there is finally a partner-in-crime in the halves, distributing the load and creating a four-pronged attack. Between Cronk, Finch, hooker Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater the Storm have an attacking structure that can create opportunities from anywhere on the field. However that attack has not been as lucrative as the past few years. After 23 rounds last season Melbourne had scored 87 tries, this year they have 11 fewer at the same point.

Cronk’s own statistics reflect that, with 15 fewer try assists than at the same time last season. In 2009 Slater is leading the Storm’s try assists with 15, while Greg Inglis has eight and Finch has six.
Assistant coach Michael Maguire, who has known Finch since his Raiders days, believes the Valentine junior has lightened the load for Cronk and enabled Finch to establish himself as a danger on the Storm’s left flank.

“They’ve both been very strong figures in the team they’ve played in and it’s helped ‘Coops’ because it’s given him an opportunity to sit back and watch what’s going on in front of him and vice versa,” Maguire says.

“With two good halves on both sides of the ruck it’s working well, and even when they do get together they play very straight and it allows our attack to really flow.”

Ryan Hoffman and Inglis have been the  main beneficiaries of Finch, who says his main role is to get the ball out to those players and give them space to work in. He has reignited the Storm’s left-side
attack and Hoffman’s offensive game.

Taking on that responsibility is more than enough for Finch though. He moved to the Eels in 2007 to play in the no.6 but found himself directing play when Tim Smith left the club. He never wanted to spend his career at halfback bearing the full brunt of his team’s attack, and it is part of  the reason  he has signed with the Storm for another season on a reduced wage.

“It’s good to take a step back from that playmaking role. The reason I went to Parramatta was to play five-eighth but I came back into halfback last year so it’s good here now,” Finch offers.

“You’ve got two dominant players like Coops and Smithy who are both fantastic so I just sit back and wait for my opportunities and play what’s in front of me, which is great. I’m not there to come up with the play on every occasion like I’ve had to throughout my career and all halfbacks have to do, and that’s been great. It’s probably why I’ve been enjoying my footy.

“Probably the reason I came down here was to get away from playing that major role and with Coops doing most of it I didn’t have to do much to fit in.”

Finch used to average 9.5 kicks per game when at the Eels. Since he has joined the Storm he is kicking just 3.4 times a game, but Cronk knows Finch’s worth to the team and to him is more than just taking a share of the kicking load.

“We work well in tandem but don’t let him fool you, he still does a hell of a lot of good work for us, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by us,” Cronk insists.

“The main thing is whenever anyone is playing good football no matter where you are it’s because you’re enjoying yourself and happy with your surroundings. I think that speaks volumes about Finchy and the way he’s playing and scoring tries these days.

“But from him being a half for 10 or 12 years of first grade, he actually enjoys being a five-eighth with a little less responsibility.”

Finch also adds a new dimension to the Storm’s tilt for a fourth straight grand final appearance. He brings even more big-game experience to this seasoned Melbourne side, and does not carry any baggage into this crucial game against the Sea Eagles from last year’s 40-0 thrashing in the decider. Melbourne have not been as dominant this season – as evidenced by their loss to Newcastle last Monday night – but this game will show how both 2008 grand-finalists are placed for this year’s finals series. And Finch believes heading in without the J.J Giltinan Shield will actually be an advantage.

“I think if we play to our potential we’ll be in the top four somewhere which would be great to get the home final,” Finch says.

“I think it will be good for the team not to come first. They’ve carried a lot of pressure with them over the past three years but now we can sneak up on teams.”