Mitch Cronin has been on the cusp of playing NRL on several occasions and only has to look at the example of South Sydney Rabbitohs' Cody Walker to convince himself his dream is still alive.
The 27-year-old Wynnum-Manly Seagulls hooker will line up in the No.9 jersey when the XXXX Queensland Residents take on their NSW counterparts at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday, with a fire still burning bright in his belly that an NRL debut is not beyond him.
Walker was 26 when he debuted with the Rabbitohs in 2016 after starring in the Intrust Super Cup. He hasn’t looked back.
After several seasons with the Canberra Raiders in 2017, Cronin secured a deal with the Brisbane Broncos and played in the Auckland Nines. He was on the cusp of realising his dream before injury struck.
"I had a really good start to the year and made the Residents side as a starting nine, but then I did my hamstring and was out for the rest of the year and didn’t get re-signed, so I have been close a couple of times but just haven’t quite made it," Cronin said.
"The fire definitely does still burn. I’m 27 now so I am probably over that period where NRL clubs are looking to sign players, but we have seen guys like Cody Walker come through late and is now at the peak of his career at the age of 29.
"Now that the under 20s are gone, the NRL is starting to look at the Intrust Super Cup system for players that are a bit older who can progress to the NRL.
"Cody proves that you don’t have to be 20 or 21 to be noticed and that there are heaps of late bloomers in the Intrust Super Cup that don’t hit their peak until they are 25 or 26."
Cronin, who went to Canberra as a fullback before changing roles, credits his former under 20s Raiders coach Andrew Dunemann for developing his game initially and enabling him to get into NRL systems; and Raiders head coach Ricky Stuart for instilling an ethic of hard work he still implements in his own preparation.
Cronin looks back at a short apprenticeship under Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough as a rewarding experience.
“Macca was really good and would pull me aside after training and help me with my game, whether it was passing or kicking,” Cronin said.
“He was one of those blokes who always offered to help you out and if you needed to ask him anything, he was always there to answer it.”
It is no surprise Cronin has modelled his game on the greatest Maroons hooker of all time Cameron Smith.
“You can’t go past Cameron Smith. He’s not the biggest or strongest player, but he’s the best between the ears and the smartest player," Cronin said.
“What he lacks with his strength or speed, he makes up for with his smarts and the way he can control a game.
“That is hopefully what I try to do, control the game the best I can.”
Cronin has been firing for Wynnum-Manly in a spine that has included on-fire half Sam Scarlett, Broncos teenager Tom Dearden and fullback Edene Gebbie in it.
The Seagulls hooker was one of his side’s best in the trial clash with the Broncos this year - a performance that kick-started his season.
“I got heaps of confidence out of that," Cronin said.
"They had a pretty stacked side with about eight of their regular first graders in the team and we really stuck it to them.
“We only a lost by a couple of tries and it gave me, and the team, a lot of confidence defensively that I could match it against some of the best players in the NRL. We’ve been able to take that into the season, where we are 7-2.”
It is that form that resulted in Cronin being selected for the XXXX Queensland Residents.
While conducting this interview on Monday afternoon in camp on the Gold Coast, coach Jon Buchanan also informed him that he would be starting on Sunday after Melbourne Storm withdrew Harry Grant from the squad.
"It is a bit of a crazy afternoon with players coming in and out and I am stoked that I get to start,” Cronin grinned.
"I am not sure what that means with how many minutes I am going to get to play, but it doesn’t get much better than running out in a Queensland jersey as a starter."
Cronin started for the XXXX Queensland Residents in 2017 when they defeated NSW 36-6, so he is no stranger to the role.
When the week is over Cronin will revert to his day job as a teacher’s aide at Harris Fields Primary School in Logan where he gets plenty of fulfilment.
"It is a very low socio-economic area and there are a lot of Polynesian students who I do a lot of work with,” Cronin said.
"We started a program a few years ago that improves school behaviour and attendance and we’ve managed to get a lot of the primary kids full scholarships into high school through rugby union or rugby league programs."