By STEVE MASCORD
‘DOES that remind you of anyone?” I am asked by one of the people contacted in the assembly of this “unauthorised” feature story on Cooper Cronk.
We are discussing the fact that the less the Melbourne, Queensland and Australia halfback says, the quicker the cult around him seems to grow.
Some 8077 people – more than the attendance for some Storm home games – ‘like’ his automatically generated Facebook ‘public figure’ page. A page called “Cooper Cronk Shirtless” has 1481 followers. He is all over the photo blog site Tumblr.
Yet Cronk does not have his own facebook page. He doesn’t Tweet. He’s one one of those players who once seemed to take pleasure in leading reporters on a merry dance. It’s one thing to be a shy rookie thrust into the spotlight, of which we saw a few last week on Dally M night.
But Cronk is eloquent, well-read and driven – and until his recent re-signing with the Storm, said almost nothing. In most interviews, he would talk in clichés deliberately and knowingly.
Since the famous media conference on March 29 – organised to extreme detail by Cronk himself – to announce a new four-year deal which he says will keep him at the Melbourne Storm for life, there has been a shift in approach.
The Souths Acacia Ridge junior has conducted a PR offensive of sorts – but very much on his own terms. He set up a website – more of that later – and courted Inside Sport magazine for an indepth feature.
But still, most print interview requests are denied. Off the field, as on, “control” is the buzzword.
This story is feeding the phenomenon, just by its very existence. But clubs and players can’t tell Rugby League Week what to write about. They can only limit our access.
So my intention was to front up to a Cooper Cronk at an all-in media conference and fire all the questions I would normally ask in an intimate setting in front of every other hack who is present.
If he says anything interesting, it will be on the evening news or in the next day’s paper and we will have done our colleagues’ jobs for them. On the other hand, it won’t be as easy to dodge questions with the cameras running.
Here’s where things get weird.
While Cronk would seemingly rather have a dentist’s appointment than sit down with a reporter one-on-one, there’s now CooperCronk.com, which delivers up the sort of quotes an interviewing reporter would kill for.
“We’re not gods and we’re not super heroes,” he (presumably, right?) writes, before saying he was inspired by Princess Charlene Of Monaco.
“Even Superman needed advice. Even blokes like me.
“…set yourself a challenge and to meet it. Not for the sake of a crowd cheering you on. Not for the sake of a blue ribbon. But because it feels good. And it makes you strong. .”
As the boys on fbi radio’s Fire Up programme revelled in recounting earlier this year, Cooper writes on his website how he used to buy chips and do kicking practice as a kid at a local oval in Brisbane, “kicking the ball through the posts from five different locations on the field. I’d tell myself if I kicked ten in a row I could go home.”
Cronk also writes that: “I didn’t show my family enough love.
‘Thankfully, I got over myself. These days, I am a son, brother, grandson and cousin, and I do not take that responsibility lightly.”
There’s the story about collapsing due to stomach ulcers when he was trying to get a start in first grade, of fearing he would never make it.
If Cooper’s reading this, he might think I’ve taken some of his comments out of context. The first thing I would say in response to that is sorry, it wasn’t my intention. The second thing I’d say is that refusing interviews doesn’t save you from being taken out of context.
The man who recently enjoyed backpacking in Peru even provides visitors with a suggested reading list. He is a fan of the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Another recommended tome is The Social Animal, by David Brooks, which argues that we are the product of our upbringing and genes as much as of our decisions and hard work.
The Observer summed up Brooks’ message thus: “The art of living well is to know how to steer our natures, and slowly remodel our characters”.
Cronk’s nature is private. He may or may not have been bitter about missing out on the salary cap rorts. But clearly, Brooks tells him he can’t change these things – only try to steer his emotions and nature in the right direction.
And watching him in action – off the field and on – is to see up close his endeavours to heed this advice.
Former Melbourne Storm recruitment manager Peter O’Sullivan recalls: “When he first became a halfback (in 2006), it would start with tip-ons from forwards and he would do something off the back of that.
“Then he would get more confidence and initiate something himself. Before long he was running the show.”
The trips to Sydney for private schooling by Matthew Johns helped his confidence, in the same way that time with Matthew’s brother Andrew allowed Daly Cherry Evans to be believe he could make the leap from Q Cup battler to NRL superstar.
Cronk no longer seems sullen, bland. He tries to sound thoughtful in a press conference situation. Last Friday, during our audience with him at an “all in” before the final against South Sydney, he greets reporters on the way in – and thanks them as he leaves.
RLW starts by asking why Melbourne had a late season slump, losing for more than a month solid.
“We scratched our head and tried to fix it overnight,” Cronk answers. “One thing I’m really proud of is the way we were able to get through that.
“Not too many teams would be able to do that. Our defence wasn’t great. Our attack was a bit all over the place. To actually have honesty in reviews set things back in order. To be able to sit today where we are, I actually take a lot of confidence from that. We actually took two steps back to go forward.
“Our best football is around the corner.”
Next I ask about the challenge of being a starting player for Queensland and Australia this year,following the retirement of Darren Lockyer.
“Look, I’ve enjoyed my time,” he says. “I love playing rugby league, it’s what I dreamed of as a kid.
“In terms of having a good, bad, successful year, I intend to leave that up to you guys or other people to decide that.
“At the end of every year, or at the start of every year, I sort of do an appraisal of my own game and look at the areas I’ve done well and maintained and the areas where I need to improve in terms of the skill base. That’s what I base my year on. If I improve on the skills, I dare say my game will improve.”
He reverses the cliché about adding a string to the bow, with the bow added to the string. Next is the suggestion that coach Craig Bellamy will be moving on at the end of next season, with Cronk having two years to run on his Storm contract at that point.
“I’m not too worried about Craig. That relationship is built on trust and respect and honesty and he’s entitled to so whatever he wishes to do but I’m very comfortable with where he’s at and where I am at.”
Now, there are some questions I would ask one-on-one that I refrained from: like “what are you trying to achieve from your website?” and “were you really upset at missing out on the salary cap rorts?” and “why don’t you do many interviews?”
In a room full of colleagues trying to preview a semi-final, those questions just seemed inappropriate and had the potential to ruin things for everyone. If you call me gutless, I won’t argue. I probably was.
Our hero writes on CooperCronk.com: ‘People often assume with players in team sports that all the individual players must be best friends. In fact they often aren’t. But what good teams have is unconditional respect for each other and they create the space for each other to live their best game.”
Cooper Cronk lives a good game. One more question about Souths, and he turns on his heals, bids his farewell, and leaves. He’s inscrutable. A man no-one really knows.
So, who does that remind me of? No-one in the known universe so much as one W Bennett.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK