MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — SEPTEMBER 09: Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrates with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk after winning the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Melbourne Storm and the Parramatta Eels at AAMI Park on September 9, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — SEPTEMBER 09: Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrates with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk after winning the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Melbourne Storm and the Parramatta Eels at AAMI Park on September 9, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Matty Johns: It’s the Big Two against One

AT times it's been tough on both parties, Cooper Cronk's split from the Melbourne Storm.

For Melbourne, it's been about finding the right replacement, tinkering with a new style for a new playmaker.

For Cronk, it's not so much like being the new kid in the class, more like the new headmaster, and getting all those around you used to your methods, quirks and style of leadership.

At the beginning of the year, when the draw was announced, this fixture, Cronk up against his old mates, was circled as one of the season's feature matches.

Due to the hype and the attention that State of Origin attracts, this match in Adelaide has crept up with very little discussion.

This match has come at exactly the right time, both clubs are starting to find their rhythm after some early inconsistencies.

For the Roosters, it was about developing key combinations and finding a style of football which incorporated the best attributes of their new No. 7, while not losing the best of the established attacking style. It hasn't been easy.

The loss of Cronk was always going to be a challenge for Melbourne. But so too coming off a premiership-winning year, and a World Cup which featured so many of their stars.

There's been games where the typical Storm energy and precision has been way down and that's all about focus. But you can see it returning.

 

 
Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith came through the same system and were given the same football education simultaneously.
Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith came through the same system and were given the same football education simultaneously.
 

Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith. They've all been through so much together and formed one of the best combinations seen in rugby league.

Crucially, they came through the same system and were given the same football education simultaneously.

All three knew their roles inside the structure so well, it allowed them to play it at lightning speed.

While other teams went about their attacking formations in slow motion, Melbourne ran their shapes at a sprint because of the understanding between the three key playmakers.

Cronk would call the mark on the field for the forwards to work to.

Smith would take them there, jumping out, putting relentless questions to the defence, getting his big men at least one on one tackles.

Then as they hit the mark, Cronk calls the play. Then Slater arrives and makes the play work.

For Cooper, it appeared a difficult transition to the Roosters' style of play.

His new yardage men operate differently to those of the Storm.

While Melbourne's forwards use guile and variation off Smith to gain momentum, the Roosters' pack tend to power onto the football off Jake Friend simply passing off the ground. A far more simplistic yardage approach.

As a result, the Roosters struggled to get forward momentum in the early rounds, and as we all know, if the big men aren't making the metres, the halfback may as well stay in the dressing room.

Cooper Cronk is starting to gel with his Roosters teammates. Picture: AAP Image
Cooper Cronk is starting to gel with his Roosters teammates. Picture: AAP Image

But things have started to change in the last month. The Roosters' outside backs are helping their middle men more and the creative players are getting traction.

Suddenly key combinations, Cronk and James Tedesco, Cronk and Luke Keary are appearing and looking increasingly dangerous.

The Roosters play tight, middle-field football with plenty of short passing options. When they win the yardage battle, this style looks terrific.

But if the play the balls are slow and momentum stifled, the Roosters' attack is claustrophobic.

There'll be very few secrets out there on Adelaide Oval.

Cronk would've been lecturing his Roosters on what to expect from his former teammates all week.

The little nuances of Smith and Slater. Vice versa, Craig Bellamy knows every tendency of Cronk. And the understanding Slater and Cronk had was so good it was like they

were blood relatives.

Slater will talk to his defenders as if he's commentating Cronk's game.

Every time Coop calls the ball, Billy will call the play.

He knows all of the half-back's favourite attacking shapes and how he likes to run them.

It's just like old times except instead of making the play work, Slater will be trying to destroy it.

While other teams are more favoured to take out the title with the punters at the moment, the Roosters and the Storm could very well be the last two standing on grand final day.

There's a lot at stake, and not just for the collective teams.

Smith, Slater and Cronk may have gone through a lot together and share enormous respect, but all three are competitors of the highest order.

Cronk has been poker faced in the lead up, but he will be desperate, not just for a win, but a big performance.

 

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