Life without Cronk no issue for Storm
Melbourne Storm are gearing up for a season without Cooper Cronk for the first time since 2003, but losing their star halfback to the Sydney Roosters is not all bad news for the premiers if history is any guide.
Cronk's decision to leave Melbourne has everyone questioning whether it will be the end of the powerhouse club's dominance.
The 34-year-old leaves behind a successful legacy at the Storm as well as a formidable combination with long-time teammates Cameron Smith and Billy Slater as he chases a fresh start with the Sydney Roosters.
How the three perform - both from a Storm and Roosters perspective - is set to headline the season, so NRL.com Stats crunched the numbers to determine what could lie ahead.
They played 232 games together for Melbourne since Cronk first came onto the scene to join Smith and Slater in 2004.
In those matches, they racked up 170 wins, 60 losses and two draws for a 73 per cent success rate.
"We've been blessed to have those three guys at that stage of their career," Storm assistant coach Adam O'Brien told NRL.com.
"I'm not sure we will see a more dominant combination again."
The key man for the side remains Smith. He holds a combined 82 victories from 119 games with either Cronk or Slater by his side.
Without Smith, both Cronk and Slater could only manage six wins together – albeit from 11 games at a 55 per cent success rate.
"He's the focal point of our attack and key guy," O'Brien said of Smith.
"You see us without him … the 2008 grand final stands out straight way. We've struggled without him in the past because of his composure in key moments and influence he has on our players."
But what is of more interest is how Slater and Smith are set to perform without the services of Cronk.
The pair have combined for 35 wins from 54 games – a promising 65 per cent winning strike rate heading into next season with youngster Brodie Croft set to step up to the plate in Cronk's absence.
"We haven't had to rely on one single player, that's going to ease the loss of Cooper," O'Brien said.
"While we'll never replace a guy like Cooper we've got a lot of quality."
With ongoing shoulder injuries to Slater, who missed most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, both Cronk and Smith teamed up for 65 matches for 47 wins and 18 losses. This strike rate is higher than Smith's overall winning record at 72.3 per cent.
There is no questioning the emergence of Cameron Munster helped ease the pain of losing Slater during that period.
The Storm are hoping for a similar progression from Croft to help take Melbourne into the next decade.
"We don't have this magical fairy dust though, it's really up to the individual to buy into the stuff the coaches teach and train them to do," O'Brien said.
"We've had players in the past that have come own and don't have that attitude. We've got tremendous faith in Brodie but what's important for him is we don't need him to be Cooper Cronk.
"It's about getting the best out of Brodie himself. But not necessarily just him. Ryley Jacks had a fair season in the games he played and Jahrome Hughes is another guy that has shown he's a handy footballer.
"Felise Kaufusi and Will Chambers will play a big part in that too - both inside and outside of Brodie … assisting the loss of Cooper either with the footy or without in defence."
Cronk's defection to Bondi immediately came with added pressure, and in the only statistic that could prove the Australian halfback could struggle without Smith and Slater by his side, he played without them in 15 games during his 323-game career for a six-win and nine-loss record.
The 40 per cent winning percentage is the lowest of all combinations.
"I'd imagine the Roosters are in a similar situation to us," O'Brien said.
"They're all individual players at the end of the day. Cooper has only ever known our systems. He's never played with Jake Friend and they've lost Michael Gordon and had Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and before that had Anthony Minichiello.
"Like anything it will take time."
How both clubs perform will be judged early to begin the season, but if you're in the purple corner there is every reason to remain confident of a Melbourne Storm title defence in 2018 with Smith and Slater at the helm.