I was caught off-guard: Smith opens up on Cronk rift rumours
IT'S the modern-day rugby league romance that could finish with a fairytale ending.
The tale of a champion halfback, one of the best of his generation, cutting ties with a decade worth of friendships. A club he was synonymous with for 14 years.
A year ago, Cooper Cronk declared to the world he was skipping town for love.
"I've been pretty selfish in my approach to my football career and I think it's time to put someone else and something else first," Cronk said last April.
It didn't come without some heartache.
Cooper's long-time teammate for club, state and country, the both of whom had formed two of the Storm's big three, remembers when Cronk broke the news to him.
"I was caught off-guard a little bit. I didn't really expect that to happen, that he was going to leave our club," Melbourne captain Cameron Smith said.
But he understood the reasons why.
For over a decade, Cronk watched on as Smith and the other member of the trio, Billy Slater, both started and grew a family in a city where most rugby league players have little family support.
Engaged to Fox Sports presenter Tara Rushton, Cronk yearned to come home to family.
Smith said: "We're all from interstate, or from overseas somewhere, all down there together just looking after ourselves. We knew the situation with Coops, and Tara being in Sydney," Smith says.
"That was really the extent of it for me.
"I was caught off-guard a little bit when Coops told me, but that was it. I don't know where the other theories and suggestions come from."
Smith is referring to reports of a falling-out between him and Cronk, a breakdown exacerbated when the Storm captain was met with a cold handshake in their only clash so far in May.
There were also claims he was upset about Cronk joining a modern-day rival, a team he knew was a chance of denying them a shot being the first time in over 20 years to defend their title.
"The grand finals that both these clubs have been involved in since the early to mid-2000s is quite a bit. There was every likelihood of (them meeting the Roosters)," Smith said.
"But I think it's great for our game that two strong clubs are vying for the trophy on Sunday."
Cronk's once unbreakable bond with Smith wasn't the only heartbreak of his decision.
For months the former Kangaroos halfback was linked with the Sydney Roosters, who have renowned for splashing the cash in chase of the game's best superstars.
From Arthur Beetson to Ron Coote, Russell Fairfax, Bob Fulton, Brad Fittler and Sonny Bill Williams, the glamour club have long been the envy of rivals clubs for luring the missing piece.
And it was no different in their pursuit of Cronk.
Not only did he play the position of club favourite Mitchell Pearce, but he had also been the source of sustained State of Origin heartache for that player.
When confirmation came of Cronk's prized signing - barely a month after the Roosters fell one game short of a grand final - there were instant rumours of unhappiness in the playing group.
It didn't take long for Pearce to wave goodbye and leave town for Newcastle.
The Roosters' Jake Friend told AAP: "We had to deal with it because it was a bit abrupt, but that's footy. Pearcey got his role up there in Newcastle and Coops came here and now it is what it is.
"Coops is here now. He's one of us and he's a big reason why we're here in this grand final."
All year, Cronk refused to consider the possibility of meeting his old club in the decider.
But this week, sitting at the opposite end of the table from Smith and Storm coach Craig Bellamy at the traditional pre-grand-final press conference this week, he was anxious.
"The team on the far left of the table (Melbourne) have contributed to me being the person and the player I am today," Cronks said.
"The team on this side has allowed me to have the two loves of football and my family, together. I think they can contribute to an immense amount.
"If I had stayed in Melbourne, I wouldn't have gotten married and have a beautiful family."
Ironically, it's the physical pain of a shoulder injury that could lead to the heartbreak of him missing out of a grand final appearance against his former club.
All year he's shouldered the burden of leaving a club he loved, in pursuit of a woman he loved, while carrying the hopes of a club he's grown to love. And he is refusing to let a tear in his shoulder be the final page in his script.
"(The Roosters) have sacrificed a hell of a lot for me to be here. And that's part of the reason why I'm working around the clock to be right for Sunday," he said.
"While it's great to play football for yourself and individual accolades, I think these guys have given up a lot for me to be here. And I think it's only fair that I return that favour back."