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From makeshift halfback to star: what the record books don't tell you about Cronk

Even Cooper Cronk's father had doubts about whether he would make it as an NRL halfback – let alone become one of the best to wear the No.7 jersey and an inspirational leader for his teammates on and off the field.

Cronk, who announced on Monday that he would retire at the end of the season, will bow out as one of only three players to have made more than 350 Telstra Premiership appearances, along with Darren Lockyer and Cameron Smith.

He has also played 38 Tests for Australia, 22 Origins for Queensland and won five grand finals – four with Melbourne and last year's triumph with Sydney Roosters -  but the record books will never state his greatest achievements and qualities.

The 35-year-old was a manufactured halfback, who played fullback, centre, five-eighth, hooker or in the back row before Storm coach Craig Bellamy settled on him as the club's long-term replacement for Matt Orford in 2006.

Within four years he had not only forced his way into the star-studded Maroons team but was a driving force behind how the Melbourne players and coaching staff dealt with the 2010 salary cap scandal that devastated the club.

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"Unlike the more recent breaches, that came out of the blue so it was a massive afternoon and I remember the whole joint was in turmoil. It was a huge shock," Storm football director Frank Ponissi said.

"I remember Cooper came to my office and said 'what do we do now'? The following day was a day off so I said we would just regroup on Saturday and get ready for the game on Sunday but he said, 'no, all of the leaders have got to get together'.

"He was the driver for us all getting together the next day at [assistant coach] Stephen Kearney's house and basically coming up with a plan to get through the next few days, the next few weeks and the rest of the year."

It was at the meeting that the plan was hatched for Storm players and Bellamy to march together across AAMI Park to face the media in a sign of unity on the eve of their ANZAC Day clash with the Warriors. 

The respect Cronk has earned from those he has played with was evident at the press conference to announce his retirement, with the entire Roosters side attending.

He had earlier phoned the people who had helped his career to inform them of his decision, including Bellamy, Ponissi and others at the Storm whose downfall he plotted in last year's grand final.

It was typical of Cronk's professionalism and genuine care for the clubs he played for and people he worked alongside.

"Whenever the club or an individual in the club was under pressure or had an issue that was when he came to the fore," Ponissi said.

"He would always be the bloke to ring that player up or go and visit him. He was always there when his teammates needed him most."

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Yet the season before Cronk's 2004 NRL debut, he was playing left second row for Brisbane Norths after being sent back to the Storm's feeder club, while teammates Billy Slater and Dallas Johnson were chosen to remain with the full-time squad in Melbourne.

In his first two seasons with the Storm, Cronk played halfback just once and was mostly used as a bench utility.

Former Storm recruitment guru Peter O'Sullivan, who now works alongside Kearney at the Warriors, described Cronk as the most dedicated and meticulous player he has seen.

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O'Sullivan believed Cronk was the man for the No.7 jersey after Orford left for Manly in 2006 and assistant coach Michael Maguire, whose role was to focus on Melbourne's attack, helped develop him into the star playmaker he has become.

"I remember his dad actually rang me and said, 'What are you doing? Everyone knows he is a five-eighth'," O'Sullivan said. "I said 'I actually think he is a halfback and I think he is a damn good one too'.

"He has certainly been a manufactured halfback but in terms of how hard he worked he had no peer in that regard. He was a competitor so he was always going to make it somewhere but he kept evolving and evolving and became a great player."

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To convince Bellamy that he was the Storm's long-term halfback, Cronk spent the 2006 off-season working on his defence and kicking game, while Matthew Johns was engaged to mentor him.

He studied all the facets about halfback play and perfected the fundamentals of the position to eventually become one of best game managers the NRL has seen.

Cronk has always been a committed trainer and had a ritual whereby he would end a session by trying to kick the ball between the posts from five different areas of the field. He would stay until he'd been successful with 10 consecutive attempts.

Maguire said the standards Cronk created for himself not only benefited his game but inspired teammates to play at a higher level.

"People probably wouldn't understand how many young players around him he has helped develop to be better players," Maguire said. "It wasn't about a coach telling him what to do, he would do it himself and it wasn't just at one or two sessions, it was every session.

"He drove the players around him and he understood that by doing that it helped his game. It wasn't just about what he could do on the field but what he could draw from other players because the better they played the better it made his role because of the levels and the standard that they were playing.

"He has been able to help build a lot of people's careers because of the standards he upheld."  

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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