MVP: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk & Cameron Smith (Melbourne Storm; Fullback, Halfback, Hooker) (Part 1)

Legendary threesome
Legendary threesome

There can be no doubt that Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are one of the best threesomes in Rugby League history. Not only have they dominated Origin for the last decade, but they’ve turned the Storm into one of the most formidable teams in the business. Of course, they’ve been helped by a quality stable of players in both cases, but their track record as a trio is just too consistent to give anybody else too much of the credit. All dynasties come to an end, though, and there’s been some speculation lately as to whether or not this one might be on the way out as well. While the barnstorming conclusion to Origin III might have seemed to put that speculation to rest – arguably the best performance yet by the current Maroons squad, which is saying something – the Storm have only just made it to the edge of the eight this year, and haven’t reached a Grand Final for some time. They say that the best time to end a television series is when it’s just started to decline – when it’s still good enough for people to miss it – and part of me wonders whether this is just the right moment for this serial footy experience to come to an end as well. Not that I want Slater, Smith and Cronk to retire – the game wouldn’t be the same without them – but sometimes I find myself wondering whether it might be the right moment for them to go out on their own and explore solo careers.

Grand Final
Grand Final

Then again, maybe not. In an era in which virtually every footy player of note has represented at least two or three teams in as many years, there’s something solid about the Slater-Cronk-Smith lineup. Storm members may have come and go – it seems an aeon since Inglis was wearing the purple jersey – while the Maroons lineup may have been tweaked and refined – Thurston, Lockyer, Parker and Boyd have all been important moving pieces – but this particular trio have remained intact. In effect, you could say that they’re the only Rugby League team that has escaped market forces – or at least used them to their advantage. Add to that their total interdependence on the field – Cronk’s absence from Origin 2014 demonstrated what can happen when just one of them is missing – and perhaps it wouldn’t make sense to separate them after all. Still, it feels like it’s timely to ask: just what is it that has made this trio responsible for some of the most dynamic footy in the current NRL landscape?

Huddle
Huddle

Obviously, the positions are key. My sense is that the vast majority of League players are fairly flexible when it comes to their positions – it often seems to only be the big names who are allied to one in particular. Whether they have the luxury of choosing a position because they’re a great all-rounder, or whether they graduate from all-rounder precisely because they’re given a chance to take a punt on a position, is one of those chicken-and-egg kind of questions. What is a bit clearer is that there’s something very special about players who specialise in just one position. That in itself would be enough to set Slater, Cronk and Smith apart from the pack, since they’re overwhelmingly identified with fullback, halfback and hooker respectively, despite finding considerable room to manoeuvre within those roles, as well as expanding them to take on other positional duties as well if the moment feels right. Like any great positional players, they understand the inherent flexibility and even arbitrariness of labels out on the field, and will often take a chance on something outside their designated skill set if the opportunity arises. In fact, that’s often when they synergise best, effortlessly distributing duties until it’s like watching one player instead of three scatter the opposition with their consummate footy powers.

Origin magic
Origin magic

That’s all intensified by Origin. Although everyone loves the brutal, plosive gameplay that is Origin football, the pre-Origin clash is often equally fascinating. If Origin is a bid for Rugby League presidency, then the buildup to Origin is something of a presidential primacy, with each state deciding who’s best for each positional role. Months – or sometimes weeks – before the Blues and Maroons go head to head, there’s a scramble to find the best Fullback, Halfback, Hooker, Wing, Five-Eight, etc etc, for each state. If you play Fullback for your state, then, you’re not just a fullback – you’re the fullback. Fullback with a capital F. Even a Kangaroos fullback has less prestige – I think – than an Origin fullback. And given that Slater, Smith and Cronk have pretty much had a mortgage on their spots since Origin 2006, that’s tended to abstract each of them into the ideal verion of their respective positions, which is another reason why it’s so odd to think of them retiring: how do you envisage fullbacks after Slater, halfbacks after Cronk or hookers after Smith, let alone Origin fullbacks, halfbacks and hookers? With every Origin that comes and goes, Slater, Smith and Cronk feel more and more like the ultimate Super Hero Team – players who’ve turned their positional duties into truly superhuman powers – which is perhaps why the Storm hasn’t qualified for Marvel jerseys during Super Hero Round: with their three skippers at the helm, they just don’t need it.

The threesome
The threesome

On top of all that, the specific positions that Slater, Smith and Cronk play make a huge difference. Obviously, if they all played the same position – or two of them played the same position – the dynamic wouldn’t be the same. That’s not to say, either, that Smith can’t segue into a dummy half when the opportunity arises – as mentioned above, their flexibility is key – but that their synergy depends partly on their differences as well. However, it’s not just the fact that they play different positions, but the specific nature of those positions. Imagine, for a moment, if Smith was a lock, Slater was a five-eighth and Cronk was a second-rower. Would there be the same magic? Definitely not. And the reason is simple. As a fullback-halfback-hooker unit, Slater, Smith and Cronk encapsulate the central structure and momentum of the game. Take a brilliant player who specialises in each of those positions and you’ve got a team in filigree. Everything else is detail. In this brilliant trio’s hand, Melbourne and the Maroons are both fused into the team in the same way that Slater seems to be the Fullback, Cronk the Halfback and Smith the Hooker. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a Blues fan through-and-through, and the Storm is not one of my favourite teams. But between them this magnificent trio have achieved a kind of apotheosis of what it means to be a Rugby League team, a team cut down to the bare essentials and the unwaverable synergy needed to achieve football at the highest levels.

In action
In action

And that brings me to the players’ individual profiles. One of the thing that fascinates me about League is the way that different types of personalities seem to gravitate towards different roles or positions on the field. Does the personality determine the role or does the role shape the personality? Once again, a chicken-and-egg question. When watching Slater, Smith and Cronk play footy, however, there’s a sense that you’re actually witnessing the essential or intrinsic character of a fullback, halfback and hooker, for all the reasons above. If you wanted to know what kind of characteristics and charisma might suit you for these particular positions, these would be the players you’d consult, which means that they also seem to embody the abstract, positional drama of the game as well. Or, to put it yet another way, if you had to distill League into a soap opera and craft a character that corresponded to each role, you’d be hard pressed to find better archetypes than these three players, each of whom seems to have taken their role and turned it into a way of relating to the world at large that perhaps explains why they’ve all got such enormous fanbases and followings from across the board. Even the staunchest Blues supporter can’t help feeling a certain, grudging compulsion at the hands of this most resilient and flexible of units, because what they personify is the drama of footy itself – and in my follow-up post on the Smith-Slater-Cronk trifecta, I’ll start to think a bit more specifically about how that drama unfolds in terms of their specific roles.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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