The 33,000km that put fun back in Croft's footy

More than 33,000 kilometres of flights, a lifelong mate and childhood hero have put the fun back in Brodie Croft's footy and lifted him to the precipice of playmaking history.

Croft has reclaimed Cooper Cronk's old No.7 jersey the hard way in 2018, bouncing back from reserve grade stints in the Queensland Intrust Super Cup to stare down his idol in Sunday's grand final showdown – should Cronk and his busted shoulder make it to game day of course.

Croft goes into the decider with just 16 first grade games to his name.

Not since 1947, when Balmain's Des Bryan won a title in his ninth game at halfback, has a No.7 claimed a premiership with so little experience.

Worn down by expectation midway through the season, Croft's exuberance has lifted him back to within 80 minutes of the game's pinnacle.

The 21-year-old's road back to the Storm scrumbase started over 2000km from the southern capital, turning out for feeder club Easts Tigers in Cairns.

Todd Carney lined up opposite for Northern Pride while Croft's parents were among the Barlow Park crowd.

Alongside him for the Tigers was Scott Drinkwater, housemate and emerging contender for Billy Slater's No.1 jumper next year after earning himself a new two-year deal.

Scott Drinkwater in action for Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup.
Scott Drinkwater in action for Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup. ©NRL Photos

Together the pair have jetted back and forth all year up and down the east coast, splitting their time between Storm training and 36-hour dashes to wherever Easts were playing – be it at home in Brisbane or as far north as Townsville and Cairns.

Tutelage from halves whisperer Matty Johns has helped simplify the game for Croft. Tearing up with Drinkwater and co reminded Croft it was still just that – fun and games.

"It's been an up and down year, certainly not smooth sailing, you can say that," Croft tells NRL.com.

"Going back to Q Cup mid-season to ply my trade, I got to play some really good footy up there, and got some really good combinations going with the likes of Scott Drinkwater and Billy Walters.

"It made me really enjoy my football again… Some of the coaches would get into me about keeping it simple and doing what I had to do to get back into first grade.

"But Scott and I would still spring some of our little trick plays, trying a few things out and when they'd come off we'd love to have a little brag about it to the coaches.

"It put the enjoyment back in my footy. Scotty and I go back to under 12s. We met each other at nationals touch footy and we were bringing back a few of our touch footy plays at Easts.

"We had a couple of scrums where we were running drop off plays into blocks and when those plays come off we were loving it and carrying on."

All up, Croft has played 11 games for the Tigers this year before returning to the Storm starting side for good in round 23.

That's 11 jaunts between his adopted Victorian home and his native Queensland, to go with whatever travel the Storm's first grade committments have involved as well.

Privately the Storm put plenty of stock in their reserve grade arrangements with Intrust Super Cup sides like Easts and Sunshine Coast.

Storm halfback Brodie Croft.
Storm halfback Brodie Croft. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The 2752km round trip the club's fringe first graders make between Melbourne and Brisbane each week is a regular reminder of just how much time and toil goes into cracking the big time.

"We train down here, then fly up the day before the game, do captain's run straight off the plane and play the next day, then fly back that night," Croft says.

"It can pretty full on with travel. But Easts are in the grand final (going down to Redcliffe with Drinkwater the star in a losing side) and have been great all year.

"I can't thank those guys enough, my teammates were really good in that period, a lot of guys understood where I was at and were really supportive. It was a really good environment to get myself back to where I wanted to be."

Just like Croft, Cronk made these treks well over a decade ago.

Now a multi-million-dollar star who has achieved everything in the game several times over, Cronk's own debut 2004 season saw him juggle Storm training and Norths Devils games before moving south mid-season on a full-time deal.

Little wonder then, that as the rugby league world wondered when and where Croft would get another crack as Cronk's successor, the Roosters half reached out to his former protégé.

"We've kept in touch here and there," Croft said of his childhood hero.

"He got in contact with me a bit after I got dropped. He was just seeing where I was at and gave me a bit of advice. It was comforting to have that support from him.

"He said the same thing, just enjoy your footy and play the way you want to play. From him, that's special. I looked up to him as a kid and loved every minute with him at Melbourne."

Brodie Croft – the kid hailed as Cronk's second coming, loving every minute of his footy once more.

 

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