Smith highlights Cronk's impending milestone
While any match at this stage of the season is bound to have special meaning, next Saturday's preliminary final will hold extra significance for the Melbourne Storm with star halfback Cooper Cronk set to run out for his 300th game in the NRL.
Since making his debut off the bench in a loss to the Sharks back in 2004, Cronk has developed into one of the game's elite players on the back of an unrivalled work ethic, a meticulous attention to detail and a right boot more precise than any other.
Unlike today's budding talent, the Maroons and Kangaroos halfback didn't enter first grade with much fanfare, instead honing his skills as a jack-of-all-trades in a bid to impress Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
Stuck behind then halfback Matt Orford, Cronk was forced to bide his time in a range of positions before finally being given the No.7 jersey on a permanent basis ahead of the Round 1 season-opener against the Warriors in 2006.
With a rookie playmaker at the helm, the Storm made the grand final that year and the next three after that before Cronk once again lifted to steer his side to victory in 2012 where he was named the Clive Churchill Medallist.
Barring any injuries in the next fortnight, the 32-year-old will become the 25th player in NRL history to play 300 games, and just the 11th to do so at the one club.
Speaking to NRL.com at the Captains Call on the eve of the finals, Cameron Smith – the only other Storm player to reach 300 NRL games – put Cronk's journey into perspective.
"Playing 300 is a huge milestone, and playing it for the one club is even bigger. I'm really happy for 'Coops'", the Storm skipper said.
"He started out as a utility and didn't have one defined role at the club. He just popped up wherever Craig needed him to play so he's done a fantastic job to not only cement that position as a half, but to also stay in the game for as long as he has.
"He's only a small fella so to play in such a physical game for so long is a great achievement.
"He's had his setbacks along the way with some pretty serious injuries throughout his career, but for him to push on and get to 300 shows how professional he is and the way he looks after himself."
While Smith and Cronk have combined to win a premiership, half-a-dozen State of Origin series and a World Cup together, the Storm skipper admitted he had no idea that Cronk – the 2013 Dally M winner – would turn out to be so good.
"Given the role he had early, I'd have to say no because we didn't know – and I don't think he did either – what was going to happen with his career, and I think he's been quoted as saying that," Smith continued.
"He was playing all over the shop at fullback, half, lock, hooker and off the bench so he was a sort of Mr. Fix-it for a time, but when he was given the opportunity to play halfback, he made it his own.
"2006 was probably a year where he was just finding his feet in first grade. I think 2007 was when you could see that he was going to be a premier halfback in the game.
"He obviously did a lot of work over the off-season and the pre-season to try to figure out his role within the team. Once he had that he just worked hard every week to get his job done.
"He's done that every year since and as we've seen with the games that he's played for both Queensland and Australia, he's one of the best halfbacks to have played the game."
While the 300-game milestone is sure to attract plenty of fanfare in the Victorian capital, Smith explained that next Saturday's celebrations will be much more than a flash in the pan.
The Storm are at the forefront of many things in rugby league, but one thing they are truly unrivalled in is honouring players' achievements.
Whether it was Tohu Harris's 100th game in Round 26 against the Sharks, or Smith's 300th against the Panthers in 2015, the Storm pull out all the stops to ensure the individual is celebrated appropriately.
"I think it started with Craig Bellamy when he first joined the club," Smith explained.
"Putting a fair bit of importance on milestone games is important to us because they are memorable moments in your career.
"For guys that are able to achieve 50 games, 100 games, 200, 300, they are big occasions that for some reason always stick in your mind.
"We put a fair bit of importance around it and we tend to have a few messages around the game to celebrate those games. We just try to make those nights memorable for the players involved."