Plenty has been made of Cooper Cronk’s impending move to the Sydney Roosters. Beyond questions of Cronk’s legacy and how the Roosters fit him within their salary cap, there is a much more important question that hasn’t yet been asked…
Is it really all worth it?
Four into three doesn’t go
The official line from the Roosters is that they won’t have to let anyone go in order to accommodate Cronk. Beyond the legitimacy of a salary cap that allows this to occur, the fact remains that once Cronk arrives, there will be four players jostling for three positions. Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary, Mitchell Pearce and Jake Friend are all premiership winning players, so it is unlikely any will want to spend the prime of their career keeping the bench warm.
Out of the four, Cronk is assured a starting position. You don’t sign a current Australian and Queensland half only to use him as an impact player off the bench. Of the remaining three, it is new man Luke Keary who appears to have been spared the axe. After a break-out year in the Rooster’s number six jersey, Keary’s running game and ability to go to the line will complement the control and precision of Cronk, providing a more than suitable foil for the former Melbourne halfback.
That leaves Mitchell Pearce and Jake Friend to fight it out for the hooker jersey.
The curious case of Mitchell Pearce
For all the indiscretions and lacklustre performances in big game situations, the Roosters have continued to stand by Mitchell Pearce. After his most recent misdemeanour, the Bondi club could have easily cut ties with Pearce – just as they had done with Todd Carney and Nate Myles before him. But they didn’t. They backed Pearce and provided him support while the image of their football club took a battering. For that, the Roosters must feel that Pearce owes them a great deal – meaning he will have little say over what position he plays next year.
While he would provide a more than capable dummy half, his immense talent and potential would be wasted playing in the hooking role. The number nine jumper just doesn’t allow the same creativity and influence that Pearce would be afforded playing at halfback. A move to hooker would also surely spell the end of what has been a much-maligned origin career for Pearce.
If Pearce was moved on to accommodate Cronk, then there would be a suite of clubs lining up to secure his signature. Manly, Newcastle and Brisbane are all watching the Pearce situation closely and are ready to pounce should he become a free agent. While offloading Pearce makes the most sense positionally, it begs the question of why the Roosters would let him walk after all the support and development they have invested in him.
The most unlucky man in all of this is Jake Friend. After debuting in 2008, Friend has played over 200 games for the tri-colours and would no doubt have expected he would finish his career as a one-club player – a rare feat in today’s transfer market. Instead, he could well be spending his offseason looking for a new club.
Plenty of Roosters supporters have said it is worth moving Friend on to accommodate a player of Cronk’s ability, which in the short term may be true, but what impact does having to punt your co-captain have on the rest of the team? While Friend is not a superstar, he is a quality player and popular figure in the Chook’s dressing room. Just last year he was voted the Roosters best for the season, gained selection in the Australian Kangaroos squad and is the Queensland hooking incumbent when Cameron Smith retires.
At 27 years of age, Friend still has a lot to give and is by no means a spent force. While he may not possess the polish and attacking prowess of Cronk, Friend is one of the Roosters’ most consistent players. He is a tackling machine, topping the Roosters count again this year with a whopping 1102 tackles.
While clubs say moving players is nothing more than a business transaction, doing so has an undeniable impact on team morale and unity. South Sydney moved on a host of quality footballers to accommodate Sam Burgess’ return in 2016 and since then, they’ve been on a downward slide with rumours of factions and disunity. For the Roosters, moving on one of your captains – a man who has been in the club system for nearly a decade – must ruffle more than a few feathers.
Is it all worth it?
Let’s say a Cronk-led Roosters do win a premiership in the next two years. Nick Politis and the Roosters board will no doubt see that as a fantastic return on investment. But what happens after those two years? Presumably Pearce slots back into halfback, but surely his confidence is shot by then? Two years biding your time in an unpreferred position must be hard to stomach for any player. At 25 and 28 years of age, Keary and Pearce were supposed to be the future of the Bondi club. Surely the Roosters had recruitment plans and structures in place to set up a dynasty around these two? Have these plans now been put on hold?
And what do the roosters do about the hooker position? If Pearce moves back to the halves, the Roosters will want to find a dummy-half replacement quickly. Rookie Victor Radley is a decent player and did a fine job deputising while Friend was out with a broken hand, however, he is not a consistent first-grader. Suddenly, letting talented utility Connor Watson go looks like a huge miscalculation.
While the addition of Cronk increases the Roosters’ chance of a premiership, there’s a legitimate argument to say they would have got there without him. The Chooks finished second this year to what was an unstoppable Melbourne side and while they fell to an under-strength Cowboys in the preliminary final, prospects looked bright heading into Season 2018. The addition of James Tedesco at fullback had positioned them nicely to mount a genuine run at the premiership. While nobody can blame the Roosters for wanting to lift the Provan Summons trophy sooner rather than later, is an immediate premiership really worth it for the years of rebuild required once Cronk is long gone?
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