There’s something untouchable and a bit mystical about Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. In part, that’s because of the fortress mentality of the Melbourne Storm, which has become so inextricable from the great trio that one of the greatest challenges facing the club over the next five years will be the way in which it manages to stagger their respective retirements so as to minimise the identity crisis that must ensue. Given that Melbourne only entered the NRL in 1998 and that Smith, Slater and Cronk played their first games in 2002, 2003 and 2004 respectively, there hasn’t really been a version of the the Storm without them, apart from the incubation period of its first couple of years. Envisaging the Storm without this legendary trio, then, is a bit like starting from scratch, not only in terms of the game itself, but in terms of the fortress mentality that an NRL outlier in an Aussie Rules heartland needs to adopt in order to survive. The situation is all the more pronounced in that the retirement of Smith, Slater and Cronk will somewhat sever the Maroons-Melbourne connection, as well as diminishing the Maroons themselves, making it harder and harder for the Storm to rely on the vicarious fortress mentality of Suncorp Stadium for their sense of identity.
If Slater, Smith and Cronk are untouchable, though, it doesn’t just come down to the quality of their game. With these three players, there’s a sense that we’re dealing with something more than the sum of its parts, a synergy that you only occasionally glimpse at even the highest levels of Rugby League. It feels right that Smith and Slater share the same birthday, since there’s a intuitive relationship between the trio at large that almost makes them feel related at times. Within the Rugby League universe, the most synergistic relationships tends to be among the halves, who have to refine their intuitive rapport with each other until they can communicate from almost any point on the field. If the halves are your classic League couple, then Smith, Slater and Cronk are like a polyamorous relationship that – against all the odds – somehow manages to work. Although only Cronk among them is a halfback, the trio gel with the immediacy and fluidity of a halves pairing, just as Cronk always seems to have a much stronger halves rapport with Slater, in particular, than with whichever half he happens to be nominally paired.
The fact that Cronk is the only halfback amongst this trio, then, gives him a special kind of status. Although Smith may be the captain, and Slater may be the more aggressive and extroverted player, it’s Cronk’s position that ultimately seems to define the way in which the three players commune and relate to each other. At the same time, there’s something about Cronk’s personality on the field – and off it – that seems to gesture towards the heart of what it is that makes this trio so mysterious and hallowed amongst Rugby League fans as well. If you had to break the trio down into each player’s role, you might say that Smith is the leader, the public face, Slater is the warrior, the coal face, and that Cronk is the spirit, the hidden face, turned inwards to whatever it is that has allowed these players to so mysteriously and effortlessly continue to improve upon perfection. While there have been endless speculations as to whether Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke might have the makings of the next major NRL trio at the Warriors when they meet up at the Warriors next year, I’m a little sceptical of whether they can match Smith, Slater and Cronk – not because they haven’t got the same level of talent (RTS and Johnson certainly do), but because their personalities don’t seem likely to gel in quite the same way. Of course, their personalities may only gel once they play together, and may take on a different kind of synergy, but that’s still very different from the almost telepathic connection the Storm three have had since Day One.
And telepathic is perhaps a good word to start thinking about Cronk, since here we’re dealing with what has to be one of the quietest and most reticent players in the competition. Granted, quietness is not such an unusual quality for a footy player, most of whom are better speaking with their bodies than conducting themselves in interviews. At the same time, some forms of quietness are more noticeable than others. One example would be Darius Boyd’s kind of quietness, which has an edge that has tended to separate it – in the minds of most fans and players – from the more typical reticence of an introverted NRL player in front of the camera. In fact, you could say that Boyd’s efforts to rebrand himself over the last couple of years haven’t involved speaking more but instead trying to modulate his quietness in a different kind of way. In a sense, he’s aimed for a more naked, vulnerable and transparent quietness, rather than the more opaque and occasionally hostile quietness with which he greeted the camera during his time at the Knights. Nobody could forget those protracted, silent stares, which for a long time seemed to designate him as one of the most passive-aggressive players in the game, a reputation that he’s only just starting to undo.
Cronk’s quietness is just as noticeable and distinctive as Boyd’s, but it is a quietness of a very different sort. The best way I can think to describe it is as a mysterious quietness, but also with a bit of a soulful touch as well. Both on and off the field, Cronk is one of the least demonstrative or articulate players in the game. What’s curious about him, though, is that you simultaneously sense that he is one of the most sensitive, intelligent and articulate players in the game, but is just deeply introspective and thoughtful in ways that prevent him showing that side of his personality too extensively, if at all. As a result, while rumours have spread about him, they’ve died just as quickly, since there’s something about Cronk’s profoundly mysterious ambience that seems to swallow up speculation the moment that it occurs. At the same time, the fact that Cronk is undoubtedly one of the most handsome players in the game also seems to remove him to a lofty, almost mythological distance, since no matter how or where he is photographed – even in the midst of the most brutal tackle or contorted pass – he seems to exude a kind of calm amidst the storm, reimagining this most plosive of football codes as one of the most serene. If the most sublime moments in Rugby League come when the punishing physical conditions are distilled into a kind of serendipitous balletic grace, then Cronk – along with luminaries such as Thurston and Inglis – has to be one of the few Rugby League players operating at the very highest level that the game can envisage.
That combination of an almost feminine grace – at least, for Rugby League – with an intensely private manner – both on and off the field – has inevitably led to speculations, rumours and full-blown gossip about Cronk’s personal life, with many pundits claiming that nothing could explain this peculiar constellation of characteristics in a footy player short of a closeted sensibility. Certainly, there are aspects of Cronk’s manner and persona that recall Ian Roberts when he was with the Sea Eagles, but I’m not convinced that this is the right way to read Cronk. At the same time, I’m not convinced that it’s not the right way either, since there’s something about Cronk’s supreme remoteness that seems to collapse the closet mentality that was prevalent when Roberts was playing at his peak. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but Cronk’s persona defies scrutiny to such an extent that the question becomes almost moot, or subsumed back into the game once again, making him a powerful emblem for a football code that – above all others – relies on homosocial proximities but relies just as much on repressing those proximities in the name of hard play. With a player like Cronk, that mysterious process that drives League – the continual near-sublimation of “antisocial” impulses – is present in a particularly powerful way, making him a kind of mascot for all the little inscrutable and necessarily opaque relations between men that lie at the heart of the game itself, and constitute its motor engine.
Of course, that’s not to say that Cronk is not affable or polite in interviews – we’re not, after all, dealing with a Darius Boyd here. But in some ways it’s precisely his affability that allows him to maintain his privacy, since there’s something about the way in which he repurposes the typical NRL interview cliches that both distances himself from them but doesn’t offer anything of himself in their place either. Again, that’s not to say that he’s insincere either, but that there’s a conscious and nuanced extrication of himself from the media spotlight as much as is possible. In my previous post on Billy Slater, I noted that, as paradoxical as it might seem, the footy field is a profoundly private space. Although live coverage is obsessed with adding camera after camera, perspective after perspective, we haven’t yet found a camera that has managed to take us right into the middle of the tackle or the scrum, and to give us an embodied feeling of what it’s like to be really amongst it. In some ways, the purpose of football films and football series from Any Given Sunday onwards is to compensate for this lack of an embodied camera, or a bodycam, withthe glitchy, jittery, handheld aesthetic typical of digital cinema, with many directors using it as a starting-off point for contemplating how this football bodycam like look like.
While that bodycam may be the next stage in football coverage, or at least something like it – we’ve already got stumpcams in cricket, and there have been a few promotional videos from the NRL that have embedded a camera within a Steeden, capturing how it “feels” to be kicked through a goal – we’re still a long way away from it. Possibly the closest we’ve come are miced footy matches, since, if we can’t follow what a player is seeing throughout a match, we can at least follow what they are saying and – perhaps just as importantly – what they are hearing. For while it’s always fun to hear the miced-up player talking, shouting or arguing, what we’re getting in that instance is really just another iteration of the commentary that we usually hear on televised football, especially since the player is conscious that they’re miced up and so make more of a conscious effort to “commentate” in turn. Watching Corey Norman’s terrific miced up performance against the Dragons this year – “You can’t be doing that, Benji” – I realised that this is possibly the best way to get a sense of where the next big football commentators should be coming from, as well as a way for footy players themselves to make a case for a commentating career post-retirement.
At the same time, however, this experience of player commentary is not really different in kind from the commentary you get while watching a live broadcast. What I find more revelatory about the miced-up match are the moments when the miced-up player isn’t talking and the audience are able to hear the ambient noise surrounding him. Sometimes this involves comments or sledges from other players, something it involves sounds that can’t be directly identified or recognised and sometimes it just involves a kind of ambient mixture of players calling, following and tackling around the football as it makes its way down the field. In all these cases, though, what strikes you is the profound quietness of the field, since, even in the most dramatic matches, the crowd’s roar is much more remote than it sounds when televised or when you are actually amongst the crowd. In a smaller match, such as the Eels-Dragons showdown for which Norman took on the mike, the crowd are almost inaudible. For footy fans who are used to seeing their game overlaid with a palimpsest of commentary, music and advertising, as well as interlaced and interspersed with a whole variety of other media, this quietness at the heart of the game – the bounce of the ball on the ground is often clearly audible – is quite salutary, a bit like the auditory equivalent of getting in touch with the grassroots spirit that underlies even the most corporate and streamlined footy spectacle.
I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that there’s something about Cronk that epitomises this quietness at the heart of the game. And part of what makes Cronk so great is that his presence takes some of the exclusivity and austerity out of this quietness as well, inviting you into it with a soulfulness that perhaps explains why, despite all his reticence, he’s one of the most popular players in the NRL. A while back, Cronk had his own personal site – it doesn’t seem to exist any more – which he used as a bit of a springboard to help motivate and mentor younger footy players. While there can be something a bit suspicious about the way in which the NRL mobilises self-help rhetoric – especially when trying to explain away player indiscretion and misconduct – Cronk’s register tapped into self-help literature and motivational literature at its best. While there were various tidbits and pearls of wisdom, it still refrained from disclosing too much about his personal life, with the exception of one fantastic anecdote about how, as a boy growing up in South Brisbane, he would head down to the local footy field each night and practice his kicking over and over again, until long after it got dark and everyone else had headed home.
In some ways, that’s a fairly standard League story, and not all that different from, say, Adam Reynolds’ accounts of growing up in Redfern and practising his kicking game over and over again. In Cronk’s hands, however, the story took on a bit of an otherworldly quality which I don’t sense in Reynolds, a sense that this was the moment in his life, heading down to the oval night after night, at which he really discovered that intense, inscrutable introspection that has become such a critical part of his footy persona ever since. For all that he seems to gather the most visceral football and fandom around himself – most dramatically, to date, in his incredible performance that sealed the deal for the Maroons this year – he still feels as if he’s poised, alone, in that empty field, just on the other edge of sunset, somehow both wiser and more ingenuous that virtually every other NRL player out there. In other words, he’s one of the few genuinely cult figures – and cultic figures – in the game, destined to grow in stature as his retirement approaches.