Kent: Cold Cronk hints at Smith truth
COOPER Cronk's short refusal to hug Cameron Smith saw him soar in the eyes of many rugby league insiders.
It sounds counter intuitive, given the widespread admiration for Smith.
Cronk would have known all the cameras were on them as he went through the line of former teammates, hugging them one by one after the Roosters' one-point loss on Friday night.
Smith looked ready for a hug, too - cameras ready - when Cronk jabbed a short right hand, shook Smith's hand with minimal eye contact, and moved on.
To where another ex-teammate got a hug …
It was the first authentic look at the doubt in Smith's reputation around the game.
The game's greatest ambassador is untouchable, impossible to criticise. The George Clooney of rugby league.
Smith is the greatest player of his generation. Possibly any generation, and one of the great performers off the field, too.
His status as the Queensland and Australian captain, as the primary spokesman for the players, coupled with his unquestioned influence on the field afforded him tremendous power around the game.
Former NRL chief executive Dave Smith was both amused and bemused that as the boss of the game he could barely get a return call from Smith.
Nobody ever dared criticise Smith. You don't desecrate statues.
Cronk had the weight of all that on him when the players were shaking hands after the game, hugs to them all, and Smith got closer with each hug.
For months whispers about the frayed friendship between Smith and Cronk was denied and diverted.
Smith might have had a legitimate reason to miss Cronk's wedding after last year's World Cup, for instance, but few were surprised at his absence all the same.
It was not an oversight.
That it happened the same weekend Daly Cherry-Evans was officially welcomed back as a Queenslander, the Maroon Who Came In From The Cold, added a small backstory to the intrigue.
Cherry-Evans got frozen from the Queensland squad after playing halfback in the team that lost to NSW and ended Queensland's eight-year winning streak in 2014.
It was always denied in Banana Town, but the knock on Cherry-Evans was that he played with a me-first mentality for a Queensland team built on team first.
It became one of their great mantras. The first example offered to separate them from the Blues.
Cherry-Evans was ambitious and immature back then. It took a long time to be forgiven.
A similar frost hit Cronk during last year's World Cup.Twin schemers for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia, Smith and Cronk barely spoke during the tournament. It puzzled Cronk for as long as it took to realise who he was concerned about.
Smith is a winner. He is sharply aware of his place in the game and there has been nobody who better knew how to use it.
Their estrangement during the World Cup was whispered about at the time but nobody would confirm it on the record.
Off the record was another matter.
Enablers around them have diverted the conversation to something as simple as the players preferring to spend more time with their families as they travelled around the country after an already long season.
It was a viable distortion, enough to quieten the noise.
What happened in between was Cronk went from announcing he was leaving Melbourne and moving to Sydney, to take up a marriage, to joining a team that was a legitimate rival to Smith's own ambition for another premiership.
The Roosters became premiership favourites the moment Cronk's contract got officially confirmed.
The rift was the first in a generation of Queensland teams that will forever have its place in history.
And it was exposed in the slightest manner that could easily have been avoided if Cronk was a different type of character.
As Smith got closer with each hug on Saturday night the easy out was for Cronk to swallow his pride, follow the popular narrative, and treat Smith the same as the rest of those former teammates copping a hug.
But Cronk is no average man, and knew there was a whole lot more going on here.
It wasn't in him, and so he brushed him, and he won some fans with it, too.