By STEVE MASCORD
COOPER Cronk won’t say exactly why he decided to spend his downtime last November doing altitude training with the Brisbane Lions in Arizona.
“I don’t want to go into that – it’s just something that interested me,” Cronk told the Sun-Herald late last night.
But coach Craig Bellamy was forced to admit after a crushing win over North Queensland that whatever his halfback’s reasons for giving up time off at the end of last season, it has worked.
We may look back on the battle between Johnathan Thurston and Cronk in Melbourne’s victory at 1300SMILES Stadium last night as the harbinger of a season in which quicker rucks allow our most skilful stars to more thoroughly display their range of skills.
Thurston, 29, picked up where he left off the previous Saturday. But Cronk, also 29, laid on three of his side’s six tries, scored two himself and pulled off a magnificent try-saving tackle on Cowboy Kane Linnett.
“He spent a bit of time over in Arizona with the Brisbane Lions, doing some altitude training,” said Bellamy, who may have lost centre Justin O’Neill to a broken jaw.
“When he came back from that, to get the full advantage of that, he had to do some training with us. While Cameron (Smith) and Billy (Slater) were lying in the sun, putting a bit on around the stomach, Cooper was still training.
“He obviously prides himself on his fitness.”THE saving grace for New South Wales used to be that Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston competed for the same position in the Queensland State of Origin side.
Only the final Storm touchdown, with two minutes left, did not involve the no.7. When Cronk tackled Thurston 20 metres from the Melbourne line with 12 minutes left, it was symbolic of an absorbing personal battle which the Storm star managed to win on points.
Asked if Cronk’s obsessive off-season had made a difference, Bellamy said: “Well, it looks as though it has. He’s been tremendous in the early part of the season. He was great in the World Club Challenge. In our two games (since), he’s been outstanding.
“He’s always going to be pushing himself to the limit. I think he went over there in mid-November … I don’t see him as burning himself out.
“He’s a pretty strong-headed character as well. If he thinks it’s helping him, it doesn’t matter what I say, he’s going to go and do it.
“But we’ll certainly look after him a bit (of a rest) later on in the year. He’ll need some.”
Melbourne led 16-6 at the end of a free-wheeling, frenetic and skill-packed first half.
The pace shown by lock Ryan Hinchcliffe when he scored his third-minute try cannot be completely accounted for by the rock-hard surface at the former Dairy Farmers Stadium.
Hinchcliffe charged onto Cronk’s pass as if shot from a cannon, accelerating away from Matt Bowen’s cover defence to touch down on the right side, with Cameron Smith converting for 6-0.
Thurston’s magnificent 20-metre cutout pass eight minutes later released winger Antonio Winterstein at 11 minutes, with centre Kane Linnett backing up inside to score.
But after Winterstein passed, he was cleaned up by fullback Billy Slater. Despite the protests of Thurston, however, referees Gerard Sutton and Brett Suttor took no action over the late challenge.
The five-eighth’s conversion tied the scores at 6-6 but the precision of Cronk gave the world champions the advantage in the run home to the break.
Firstly, however, Thurston flexed his hands as if experiencing pins and needles after a try-saving tackle on Melbourne winger Matt Duffie in the 15th minute.
The club Tweeted that Thurston had taken the impact on “the inside of his eye” but had been cleared by medical staff of any serious injury.
Winterstein put a foot in touch at 20 minutes, resulting in a would-be try being chalked off, and eight minutes later Melbourne snatched a 12-6 lead.
Fullback Slater kicked ahead, the tackle count was restarted, Thurston pulled off a magnificent try-saver on Duffie but quick Storm play-the-balls saw Jason Ryles offload and Cronk cross from close range.
Cronk’s art of throwing passes so sublime that their receivers don’t have a hand laid on them brought another try two minutes before halftime when centre Will Chambers flashed over.
Storm interchange forward Siosaia Vave was booked for a crusher tackle just after halftime but Cronk soon claimed his second try.
He was backing up a scrambing movement on the right side, taking an inside pass after a restarted tackle count to plunge over.
For the next 20-plus minutes, North Queensland peppered the Melbourne line but were consistently repelled. At one point, Thurston screamed at the referees to consult the video officials but his appeal fell on deaf ears.
Finally, North Queensland managed to score through winger Ashley Graham in the 71st minute. By that time, O’Neill was off the field with his facial injury.
After playing their previous two games in Leeds and Melbourne, Craig Bellamy’s men were visibly drained as the contest headed into the final 10 minutes. But still, their defence held
And they added further tries to Chambers (75 minutes) and Ryan Hoffman (78).
O’Neill will be x-rayed tomorrow. He also lost a tooth in what Bellamy described as :”an accidental elbow”.
Over a five-week period, the Storm have games in Leeds, Melbourne,Townsville, Melbourne again – and Brisbane.
“To go over to England and win the World Club Challenge is a wonderful effort but to come back and win our first two games in really trying conditions is a real credit to them,” said Bellamy. “I’m really, really proud of them.”
Hooker Smith added: “What it really boils down to is we’ve got a tough footy side. We’ve got a really resilient bunch of blokes in that dressing shed. A lot of people can say we’ve got a tough draw, you’ve got to play in the heat, you’ve got to back up in five days.
“To us, we’ve just got to do it.”
North Queensland coach Neil Henry said Melbourne fullback Billy Slater had illegally taken out winger Antonio Winterstein after he put centre Kane Linnett over for an 11th-minute try.
“They showed replays of it and I thought he got hit high,” said Henry. “I’m not sure if it was a shoulder or an elbow but it was high.
“Any part of the body that hits the head is a high tackle. Antonio was rattled because he got hit in the head.”
Henry and his players labelled last night’s clash as a barometer of their premiership candidacy. Henry said it had proven to be just that – even if the mercury was considerably lower than where he had hoped.
“I think we were second best in a lot of areas – it was a bit of a lesson in footy, really,” Henry said.
“Tonight’s performance has turned into a real good guage of what we’re lacking.
“Scrambling defence – it was a lesson in being desperate on your own line. I think they (Melbourne) probably saved four or five tries.”
MELBOURNE 32 (C Cronk 2 W Chambers 2 R Hinchcliffe R Hoffman tries C Smith 3 G Widdop goals) bt NORTH QUEENSLAND 10 (K Linnett A Graham tries J Thurston goal) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Referees: G Sutton/ B Suttor. Crowd: 19,288.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD