The perfect match
This story appeared first on www.nrl.com
They're the quintessential odd couple.
The meticulous planner and the instinctive thrill-seeker; the short back and sides versus the unruly mop of hair with no sense of conforming.
But from the time they were teenagers Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston have been literally on the same track to super-stardom.
They arrived at their final destination in very different ways but as teenagers both Cronk and Thurston would get on the same Beenleigh train heading north to school in Brisbane's south, Cronk to Brisbane's prestigious St Laurence's College and Thurston to Acacia Ridge State School.
It's a sliding doors moment that would make for the perfect opener to a movie made about their lives; the practical joker with a crowd around making all sorts of noise catching a steely glare from the private school kid with his head buried deep in a textbook.
On Wednesday night they will form the Queensland halves pairing for the seventh Origin match in succession and continue a partnership that had its seeds sown in a suburban Brisbane train more than a decade ago.
"I remember growing up as a kid and we lived in the same area, caught the same train to school – even though we went to different schools it was the same train. So there's been that familiarity for a long period of time," Cronk told NRL.com.
"I played a lot of rugby union as a kid, he played a lot of rugby league, we lived in similar suburbs but it wasn't until we all played football against each other and with each other that we worked out that he lived in Sunnybank, I lived in Runcorn and we caught the same train along the same train line.
"It's quite strange and you can't really explain it."
Few people know the pair as well as Maroons teammate Billy Slater who has spent almost his entire club career alongside Cronk at the Storm and has been a regular teammate of Thurston's at Origin level since 2005.
During their Gold Coast camp Thurston and Slater were seen choreographing a complicated handshake/celebration – the kind of thing you could never imagine Cronk participating in – but Slater insists it is their differences that make them such a potent partnership.
"They're different people but I think they complement each other," Slater said. "With Cooper in the side 'JT' gets that freedom to concentrate on his game.
"Cooper directs the team around and has got a great kicking game, Johnno's got a great kicking game as well and Cameron (Smith, Maroons captain) helps out in that aspect as well.
"They complement each other and they know each other's games but they are different people."
During Origin preparations Thurston dropped the bombshell that he and Cronk had been on end-of-season holidays together – he refused to divulge exactly where – and that his scheming No.7 does enjoy letting down his closely-cropped hair down from time to time.
Having played half to Darren Lockyer's five-eighth for six Origin campaigns, Thurston's role changed when Cronk finally got his opportunity to start in 2012 and the champion competitor admitted that it took time to adjust.
"It took a little while," Thurston said of their new combination. "It was more my role had changed a lot within the team. It took me a while to adjust to playing a different role because he'd normally come off the bench back then but it didn't take us too long at all and we haven't lost too many games together.
"'Coops' is real structured and gets the boys around the park very well and I play off the back of that.
”He's a very good communicator and he's got a smart football brain and gets the boys around the park very well and the boys respond to him, which is what you need," added Thurston, who requires just four points to succeed Mal Meninga as Origin's greatest ever pointscorer.
The individual skill-set that each of the pair brings to the team are almost as different as their off-field personalities yet have helped to contribute to four of six wins together as the Queensland halves pairing heading into Game One of the 2014 Series.
They lead the NRL in try assists in 2014 (Thurston 14, Cronk 13) and understand that for each of them to perform well, the other must also be a major contributor. It was Cronk who kicked the Series-winning field goal in 2012 yet it was Thurston who was named the man of the match and it's this synergy that Cronk believes is the key to their success.
"We're quite lucky that my role or the way I like to play complements him and vice versa," Cronk said.
"I have a combination obviously with Billy and Cameron at club level and we tend to work with the middle third of the ruck. We try to take advantage of slower ruck fours and quick play-the-balls and when Johnathan's set and he sees something it's about getting the ball to him as quickly as possible.
"We work in tandem that way and it's worked for us.
"Basically what happens is we're laying field position and working over players and Johnathan will call the ball when he sees something out wide after we've compacted their defensive line.
"There are a number of different ways we work in tandem on the field, it doesn't just work one way, but that's it in a nutshell."
It's a simple yet revealing insight into what confronts the Blues on Wednesday night: Do they try to temper Thurston's individual brilliance or somehow limit Cronk's ability to dictate the territory and possession that allows Thurston to weave his magic?
It's the classic 'What comes first?' from two very different men still heading in the same direction.