Cronk's shoulder distracted Storm more than Roosters

The first thing Billy Slater did after his career officially ended with defeat in Sunday night's grand final was to walk over to a wincing Cooper Cronk and hug the former teammate whose broken shoulder may have proved more of a distraction for the Storm players than the Roosters.

That was a question being asked at ANZ Stadium after the Storm failed spectacularly in their bid to send Slater out with a premiership in his last match and create history by becoming the first team to win back-to-back grand finals in 25 years.

Instead they finished with 12 players after five-eighth Cameron Munster became the first player sin-binned twice in a grand final for a cheap shot that may have gifted his No.6 Australian jersey to Roosters playmaker and Clive Churchill Medal winner Luke Keary.

Some would argue the time Munster spent in the sin-bin evened the playing numbers as for all intents and purposes the Roosters only had 12 players and Cronk was on the field merely to direct them around.

After overcoming the disruption caused by Slater's judiciary hearing, when he was cleared of an illegal shoulder charge last Tuesday, it all seemed to be plain sailing for the Storm - until the Telstra Premiership decider kicked off.

While the focus in the lead-up to the grand final was firmly on Cronk and what the Roosters would do if he wasn't fit, the only consideration for the Storm seemed to be whether they targeted the former Test and Origin halfback or his replacement in defence.

Yet after the Roosters' 21-6 triumph there was a feeling the Melbourne players may have become caught up in the intrigue over Cronk's shoulder injury and the decision of rival coach Trent Robinson to name him on an extended bench in the No.23 jersey.

If Cronk wasn't playing, who would share the Roosters playmaking duties with Keary?

If he did play, how fit was he and what would his role be?

As it turned out, Cronk virtually played in a dinner suit as he had limited involvement but his mere presence was enough to unsettle the Storm as they tried to get at the halfback who had played alongside them in seven previous grand finals.

On one occasion, Nelson Asofa-Solomona dropped the ball as he appeared to be trying to locate Cronk in the defensive line to run at him.

On another, Melbourne five-eighth Cameron Munster had a try disallowed after Asofa-Solomona managed to find Cronk but was penalised for obstruction after running into him without the ball.

Cronk did not run the ball in any of the 18 occasions he handled it but the first two of his four kicks resulted in errors by the Storm that led to tries, while he finished on his back after a late – but legal – tackle on both occasions.

Even before Munster was banished the first time in the 30th minute for a professional foul after a break by Roosters hooker Jake Friend, the game was swinging away from Melbourne and by the time he returned they trailed 18-0 against this season's best defensive team.

The half-time statistics showed the Storm had been starved of possession and were rarely in a position to mount pressure on the Roosters defensive line due to handling errors and a superb kick-chase game by their opponents.

Each time Keary kicked the ball, Cronk put himself in a position as an alternative option to at least attract some attention away from his halves partner.

The Storm had no answer and their only try was against the run of play when winger Josh Addo-Carr intercepted a Keary pass and ran 80 metres to score in the 62nd minute.

It was a disappointing end to a great career for Slater, in which he had achieved everything the game had to offer – winning two premierships in 320 appearances for Melbourne and been awarded the Clive Churchill Medal in 2009 and 2017, along with the 2011 Dally M Medal as NRL player of the year.

He also played 30 Tests for Australia and 31 State of Origins for Queensland, the majority of which were alongside Cronk, who defied a broken left scapula to become the first player since Johnny Mayes in 1974 to win back-to-back premierships with different clubs.

As soon as the full-time siren sounded, Slater made a bee line for Cronk, who had come from the field two minutes earlier, to see his former teammate.

"He is a really good mate of mine, he is one of my best mates and it was really tough to see him play the second half he did last week, knowing that he was in doubt for this game," Slater told Channel Nine.

"They hid that really well from us but it was a courageous effort and I just told him how proud I was of him.

"I am shattered for our team but I am just really proud of the performance that he put in tonight. He will always be a really great mate of ours and he was too good for us today.

"It certainly kept us in the dark but I couldn't fault our preparation. It was just the start for us, and things just snowballed against us. We lost Cameron Munster for 10 minutes and things went against us.

"That's the way it goes sometimes and I am really grateful for the career I have had made, I am grateful for the friends I have made and what rugby league has done for me.

"It has taught me a lot of things; selflessness, respect and I appreciate everything that everyone has done for me."