A player has never had as much impact on a grand final with so few touches – or so inspired his underdog teammates that one continued playing with a suspected broken leg.
Cooper Cronk, Sydney Roosters star and big-money recruit, rarely touched the ball in his side’s 21-6 grand final win over Melbourne Storm at ANZ Stadium on Sunday night.
Instead, Cronk – battling what was later revealed to be a broken scapula (shoulder) – pointed, guided and coached, using all of his 349 NRL games of experience to essentially play the role of conductor.
And when his halves partner, Luke Keary, kicked the ball, last-minute inclusion Cronk stood in front of him.
There has never been a higher-paid decoy in rugby league history but Cronk was in too much pain to be passing, kicking or tackling on a regular basis.
And he wasn’t the only one hurting.
Winger Blake Ferguson played the majority of the second half of the Sydney Roosters’ NRL grand-final win with a suspected broken fibula that saw him sporting a moon boot and crutches when he hobbled into Monday morning’s fan day celebration.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson said that Cronk’s shoulder was “broken right through the bone” and that the “strong man” needed pain-killing injections, both before and during the match, just to get through.
That did not stop the pain, either, but as it was in a nail-biting preliminary final win over South Sydney, Cronk’s big game know-how – particularly against his former club Melbourne – would prove crucial.
His presence allowed Keary, given the Clive Churchill Medal for best afield, to flourish, particularly in an utterly one-sided first half in which the Roosters scored all three tries.
The Roosters then withstood a belated spell of Storm pressure in the second half to win their second grand final in six years.
Cameron Munster was sent to the sin bin twice for the losers on a night where they simply never got going.
Keary and first-half try scorer, Latrell Mitchell, produced when it mattered for the Roosters but the fallout centred on Cronk, as former players, teammates and commentators were left in amazement at his courage.
“I cannot get over the performance of Cooper Cronk, who was physically inhibited and restricted,” Nine Network analyst Phil ‘Gus’ Gould said.
“His mere presence on the field was such an uplift to his teammates.”
Roosters skipper Boyd Cordner said that even in the team camp, no one knew if Cronk was playing essentially “until game time”.
“At 30 per cent, we want him on the field,” he said.
“We had to make up a game plan where we protected him as much as possible. We executed that.”
Cordner, who also hailed his side’s defensive efforts, said that Cronk’s efforts would “go down in history for sure”.
Cronk later revealed his motivation for pushing himself through the pain barrier, referring to the salary cap sacrifices players made so he could join from Storm at the end of 2017.
“Everyone at this football club has sacrificed something for me to be here and it was my duty to do whatever I could do to repay that faith,” he said.
“I don’t take that responsibility lightly. That was the motivation … [but] it was only a last-minute thing [that I could play].
Matchwinner Keary said that Cronk’s presence helped him dominate proceedings.
“He knows what to say at the right time … he stood behind the boys and told them where to go and what to do. Just having a bloke like that out there calms you down,” he said.
The Roosters set the tone immediately, with their line speed and defensive energy immediately catching the eye.
Billy Slater, playing his final match before retirement, was roundly booed every time he touched the ball and an early penalty put the Roosters on their way as Mitchell, returning from suspension, kicked truly.
Consecutive sets allowed the victors to build pressure and Keary then produced a sensational pass out wide for Daniel Tupou to cross for the game’s first try in the eighth minute.
Sydney’s defensive intensity forced Melbourne to make five errors in the first 25 minutes and a missed Will Chambers tackle did not help Storm.
Mitchell made light work of the Queensland veteran’s effort, barging over for the game’s second try before adding the extras, and Melbourne’s task was made much tougher by Munster’s first trip to the sin bin for a professional foul.
Only clinging on to a 12-point lead thanks to some desperate defence, Storm could not cope with the numerical advantage its opponents had, leading to Joseph Manu’s 37th-minute try.
The Roosters thought they had crossed again just four minutes into the second half, but Blake Ferguson had just stepped into touch under pressure from Munster, a defensive effort that seemed to inspire Craig Bellamy’s men.
A series of repeat sets followed as they eventually made some headway in Roosters territory, but Storm could not break through, instead relying on an error for its only try.
The otherwise excellent Keary produced it, his errant pass intercepted by Josh Addo-Carr, who sprinted away in trademark fashion to score.
But Storm never properly threatened to score another try, meaning Keary’s 69th-minute field goal and Mitchell’s late penalty only added gloss to the scoreline.
Melbourne’s night was summed up when, with three minutes left, Munster – the first player sent to the sin bin in a grand final since 1995 – got his marching orders again for a kick on Manu.
The force was minimal but it was ugly, an apt finish on a dirty night for Storm.