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‘They forgot they ever played a bad game’: Eels legend no fan of headline-chasing former players

“I’ll never forget that woman coming up to me at the Leagues Club,” Cronin, 69, recalls. “I was a bit tougher by then.”

Imagine if Cronin had played today. The anger! The contempt! The outrage! He’d have broken the internet.

Mick Cronin and Ray Price accept the Winfield Cup from Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1986.

Mick Cronin and Ray Price accept the Winfield Cup from Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1986.Credit:Getty

“They’d never have got me on social media,” he chuckles. “I don’t even have a phone.”

We’re reminiscing with the Parramatta legend about the good old days as we sit in the courtyard of renowned rugby league journalist and author Ian Heads, who phoned a few weeks ago to point out that Cronin had quietly slipped into rugby league retirement.

After coaching Gerringong in Group 7 for the past 12 years, having also coached them from 1987 to 1989, he’s decided to give someone else a turn. He finishes with an impressive tally of 10 grand finals appearances and five premierships, including one last year.

Cronin’s departure came with no fanfare, no fuss, no will-he-or-won’t-he theatrics.

“I said I’d keep coaching as long as Wayne Bennett,” he says, “but I reckon he’ll coach longer than I live.”

Ray Price and Mick Cronin at the SCG in 2016, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their 1986 premiership.

Ray Price and Mick Cronin at the SCG in 2016, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their 1986 premiership.Credit:Steve Christo

In all his years as Gerringong coach, Cronin never took a cent for his trouble. He’s one of those people who wants to give back to the game, not see how much he can take from it.

Cronin was the Scanlens footy card every kid wanted even if you weren’t an Eels supporter, such was his popularity, and it was refreshing to sit with him and Heads in a week when rugby league burnt energy once again on the things that don’t really matter.

He shakes his head at the ruthlessness of former players, who now sit on TV panel shows and savage those still playing.

“They forgot they ever played a bad game,” Cronin said. “I can cop the journos writing what they have to write. They haven’t seen it from a players’ point of view. But these former players have an insight into what a player is really feeling. To say some aren’t trying is a big claim. If you want to be controversial, that’s fine. But are you doing that because that’s what you really believe or are you wanting to make a headline? I thought the treatment of Darius Boyd last year was very unfair. If you’re fair dinkum, you already know you had a bad game. Jack Gibson said, ‘I can cop you having a bad game. I can’t cop you not realising it’.”

That said, the rugby league media hasn’t always been kind to Cronin.

One morning, in late September 1973, he took a call from a reporter.

“How’s it feel to be the greatest Kangaroos selection shock in history?” he was asked.

Cronin had played all his senior football for Gerringong, resisting offers to play in Sydney, but was controversially picked for the tour of Great Britain.

“The papers give it to me,” he recalls. “One bloke wrote, ‘They say he can play the piano, which will come in handy on tour because he won’t be doing anything else’. Another wrote, ‘He would have to catch a cab to keep up with Bobby Fulton’.”

Heads, who was writing for the Telegraph in those days, was also critical, believing Manly’s Johnny Mayes deserved selection ahead of him.

At the team medical, he introduced himself to Cronin and apologised.

“It’s just a matter of opinion,” Heads told him. “I hope you prove me wrong. I wish you well for the trip.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Cronin replied.

In the weeks that followed, Cronin regularly rubbed shoulders with Heads and the rest of the reporters, often at a greyhound meeting in Leeds.

He played 10 tour matches and two Tests against France, finishing as the top point-scorer, but when he returned he resisted offers to play in the Sydney competition, preferring to play with his mates in Gerringong.

Parramatta coach Terry Fearnley tried as hard as anyone after his side lost the 1976 decider to Manly and finally landed him the following year.

Mick Cronin in his prime in 1986.

Mick Cronin in his prime in 1986.Credit:NRL Photos

“If I kick a goal, Terry Fearnley wins a grand final in 1977,” laments Cronin, who went on to win premierships with the Eels in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986.

As for the modern game, he loathes the dreaded wrestle like most former players you speak to.

“I refused to coach wrestling at Gerringong, although some would try to sneak it in now and then,” he says. “The NRL is trying to improve a situation they let happen in the first place with the wrestling.”

He’s undecided about the six-to-go rule, suggesting a different rule change.

“All sides hold,” Cronin says. “If the first two players can hold, the third bloke can’t come in around the legs.”

Cronin won’t be directly involved in rugby league any longer, but it will always be in his heart.

Random people still drop into the pub to talk footy. Some even have the cheek to talk about the missed goals of 1977.

“There must have been a million people sitting in the Sheridan Stand that day because they’ve all come into the pub since then to remind me,” he laughs. “And every one of them a St George supporter.”

Talking heads

It took just one round for the NRL’s concussion debate to crank up again.

The playing future of Roosters hooker Jake Friend is in the balance after he was left convulsing on the field after a heavy knock against Manly on Saturday.

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That one was pretty clear. Not so much the one involving Dragons fullback Matt Dufty, who was clobbered by a swinging arm from Sharks centre Jesse Ramien.

Right on cue, rent-a-quote doctor Adrian Cohen started spamming journalists with furious emails, making all sorts of wild accusations.

“If you are concerned as I am by these events, I am available for comment,” he advised.

The thrust of Cohen’s argument is that Dufty was left “visibly and undeniably unconscious” and should have been taken from the field straight away, with no HIA because he should not have returned. He draws comparisons to Boyd Cordner in Origin I last year.

I’m not sure what match Cohen was watching but there is no comparison to Cordner. In fact, Dufty springs to his feet almost straight away, within the two seconds of “lying motionless” threshold that warrants a HIA, and then joins the all-in push and shove that’s going on.

Cohen also claims Ramien should have received a “red card” for the tackle, banned for the year and the Sharks fined $100,000.

What’s really annoyed Cronulla is his description of the Ramien tackle as a “coward punch”. The Sharks are considering their legal options.

The NRL’s concussion protocols deserve rigorous debate.

At the very least, head office should be more transparent. Of all the unnecessary media releases it sent out during the week, surely they could have sent one out explaining the Dufty incident.

But this very sensitive and important issue about concussion is not helped by those suffering from Relevancy Deprivation Syndrome.

Des-perate measures

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Manly on Thursday night announced a complicated extension of Des Hasler’s contract – just days after reports emerged he was on the outer.

That, my friends, is vintage rugby league.

According to the Hasler camp, he spurned approaches last year from the Warriors and Cowboys because he wants the cement his legacy at Brookvale.

The new deal will extend Hasler into next season. A top-eight finish is required for him to extend a further year into 2023 with an option after that to become a consultant for 2024 and 2025.

It’s a complex deal for a complex coach at a complex club.

The quote

“There’s nothing wrong with the car except it’s on fire” – One of the many famous utterances of Formula One caller Murray Walker, who passed away this week aged 97.

Thumbs up

RIP “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler, 66, a middleweight king who was knocked down just once in his 67 bouts. (He insisted he slipped). If you haven’t watched the 1985 bout between Hagler and Thomas Hearns at Caesars Place, do so now.

Thumbs down

The Sharks had a quiet word to Toby Rudolf on Monday morning about his Matty Johns Show comments. It should’ve ended there. Instead, the NRL handed out an official warning, and then issued a press release, generating two days of talk. Go figure.

It’s a big weekend for …

the Buddy-less Sydney Swans as the AFL season gets under way. They play Brisbane Lions in Brisbane on Saturday night.

It’s an even bigger weekend for …

Jockey James McDonald, who was forced to get off Golden Slipper hotshot Stay Inside ($4.50) to stay loyal to the Waller stable and ride Home Affairs ($17). Ignore all of this if the meeting is washed out.

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