Ron Coote, the last player to have played in nine grand finals and only one of four others to have achieved the feat before Cooper Cronk, believes the Sydney Roosters halfback deserves to be considered as a future Immortal.
While Cronk is widely considered to be behind Johnathan Thurston and ex-Storm team-mates Cameron Smith and Billy Slater in terms of future Immortal status, his achievement as the only player of the NRL era to play nine grand finals ensures he will be firmly in the debate.
Only Norm Provan (St George 1956-65) and Brian “Poppa” Clay (Newtown 1954-55, St George 1957-61, 1964-66) have played in more grand finals, while Eddie Lumsden (St George 1957-59, 1961-66) and Coote (South Sydney 1965, 1967-71; Eastern Suburbs 1972, 1974-75) also played nine.
In addition, Cronk is aiming to become the first player to win three consecutive premierships since members of the great Parramatta teams of 1981-83 after helping Melbourne claim the 2017 Provan-Summons Trophy and last year inspiring the Roosters to grand final glory against the Storm.
By doing so he became the first player to win back-to-back grand finals with different clubs since another Roosters halfback Johnny Mayes moved to Bondi in 1974 after helping Manly to the 1973 premiership.
Match: Roosters v Raiders
Grand Final -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
“Cooper is a great player and it is great to see him get to nine grand finals too,” said Coote, who was on the short list for Immortal selection last year when Norm Provan and Mal Meninga were inducted, along with Dally Messenger, Dave Brown and Frank Burge from the pre-World War II era.
“It just shows what a great player he is and how much he contributed to getting to those grand finals. He has an enormous influence on the Roosters' game and he is certainly a champion player.”
Asked if Cronk should be considered along with Thurston, Smith and Slater as a future Immortal, Coote said: “I think he would be up there with them. He is as good as I have seen.”
Frank Puletua, NRL awards and international strategy senior manager, said Cronk, Thurston, Slater and Greg Inglis would become eligible for Immortal status in 2026, along with Smith unless he decides to play on beyond next season.
To be eligible for consideration as an Immortal, a player must be inducted into the Hall of Fame at least a year earlier.
However, players must wait five years after retiring before they can be nominated for the Hall of Fame, with Slater and Thurston eligible in 2023 and Inglis and Cronk in 2024.
“Cronk’s record is amazing to say the least, and it will be interesting come time for those discussions or deliberations,” Puletua said.
“The next Immortals enshrinement is scheduled for 2022. However, the likes of Cronk, Thurston, Slater, Inglis and Smith will be ineligible based on Hall of Fame criteria.
“This means that the likes of Darren Lockyer, Brad Fittler, Glenn Lazarus, Allan Langer, Laurie Daley, Steve Rogers and Peter Sterling will be in the running for 2022, whilst this cohort will be looking at 2026 to come into the mix – all vying for Immortals status in that year and onwards.”
With Provan becoming an Immortal last year, there are now four members of the great St George teams which won 11 consecutive grand finals between 1956 and 1966, along with Reg Gasnier, John Raper and Graham Langlands.
However, it remains to be seen how many players from the Queensland team which dominated State of Origin between 2006 and 2017 become Immortals, with Lockyer, Thurston, Smith, Slater, Inglis and Cronk all mentioned as future Immortals.
Cronk said he felt uncomfortable to even be mentioned "in the same breath" as players from St George's golden era.
“Those guys are pioneers of football today," Cronk said. “The success they had, the players they had and the way they set up football back in those days allows us to do what we do today."
"I am a result of the clubs and the teams and the people I have been involved with."
Paul Broughton, who has been a player, coach or administrator for almost all of his 85 years, compares Cronk to legendary St George halfback Billy Smith, who played in seven grand finals during the Dragons' record run and was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 2008 as one of the top 100 players of the century.
“I coached Billy Smith at Saints lower grade briefly in 1961,” Broughton said. “He was a one-club player from 1961 to 1977 and played in back-to-back grand finals in seasons when there were only 18 or 22-game schedules.
“He did not have a great kicking game but that was not a primary concern as limited tackle - initially as four tackles and then six - was not introduced until 1967 [coinciding with the end of St George's domination].
“It’s interesting to note how the skill factors required changed as the laws changed and the limited tackle follows the NFL evolution, but we actually use the foot to deliver the ball to the wing whereas they use the arm to get the football to the receivers.
“Fortunately one can compare by involvement, with the realisation that Smith and Cronk were both surrounded by some of the most talented rugby league players of any era.”
Rugby League historian David Middleton said a compelling argument could be made for Cronk to be named an Immortal, given his extraordinary achievements at club, state and Test level.
"The suggestion that he has ridden the coat-tails of Smith and Slater for the Storm, and throw in Thurston and Inglis for Queensland and Australia, has been diluted somewhat by his efforts at the Roosters," Middleton said.
"You could also look to Queensland’s series loss in 2014 being largely due to Cronk’s absence with a broken arm. The Maroons were on top in Game 1 until he departed, he missed Game 2 when the series was lost and when he returned, the Maroons blitzed the Blues 32-8
"Also, it is hard to overlook a career winning percentage of 70.9%, grand final victories for two clubs, his role in elevating the Storm to a pre-eminent position in the game, his part in Queensland’s Origin dynasty and Australia’s ongoing success at Test level.
"The negatives you hear about Cronk are that he lacks the ability to play outside structure, or that he doesn’t have a Plan B if things are not working for him. There is a view that he is so highly programmed and tied to a game plan that he lacks the brilliance to win a game with sleight of hand or a devastating sidestep or change of pace …
"Those views may or may not be valid but to me his record speaks volumes. Show me a mere mortal with a more impressive list of achievements."
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Renowned journalist and author Neil Cadigan said he had considered Coote to be the next deserving Immortal based on his six winning grand final appearances, 15 seasons with the Rabbitohs and Roosters as well as his Test match achievements.
“Cronk is probably equal to Coote now on the basis of his influence on successful club teams, an 11-season Test career and eight in Origin, over 370 NRL games and his influence on the Roosters despite not signing until he was 34,” Cadigan said.
Despite not having the same natural talent as the other great players of his era, Cadigan said Cronk’s remarkable work ethic and attention to detail stood him apart from his more gifted peers.
“If you rank the great players on the most appropriate criteria - consistency over a long period; form at all levels and in tough times, not just good times; and their ability to positively influence the teams and teammates they play with, Cronk is up there with the best,” he said.
"Yet Lockyer’s and Smith’s appearance records at club and Test level, and their records as captains, and JT’s dominance of individual awards and incredible ‘clutch play’ history in big games put them ahead of Cronk in my books.”
Tickets for the NRL Telstra Premiership Grand Final 2019 are now on sale to the general public.