With due deference and an apology to the good denizens of Wakefield, the finest trinity in rugby league comprises of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston. This trio left England bereft in the Four Nations last Sunday, compiling another exhibit for the case that makes them peerless in the game, any game, but certainly The Greatest Game. It’s difficult to describe precisely how they did it without resorting to sports hackery, so how about death by a thousand synonyms.
It’s not so much what they have done on their way to numerous victories in the World Cup (Australia), World Club Challenge (Melbourne and North Queensland) and State of Origin (Queensland); it’s what they don’t do. They don’t panic, they don’t make mistakes and they don’t lose focus. At their core is the much-ignored ability to do the basics better and for longer. That makes them sound rather dull, efficient or clinical – robotic is the modish description – but the near-perfection in the weighting and accuracy of dozens of passes from dummy-half by Smith, the incessant placement of kicks, high and low, inches from the tryline by Cronk and the all-round brilliance of Thurston is a joy to watch. Their sheer consistency over a decade is something few others have matched.
Despite the riches and glamour of rugby league in Australia, they are not flashy superstars (maybe it helps they do not play for Sydney clubs). The most eye-grabbing pieces of trivialities between them is Thurston’s head guard, gumshield and unruly hair – how the ball moves during his conversion attempts is even more untidy, but it does have the benefit of everyone knowing where it’s meant to be going.
Cronk is the least acclaimed of the three – Thurston has been named world player of the year three times and Smith once – but listen to what his captain said after the half-back’s supreme performance at the Olympic Stadium (and yes, it’s the Olympic Stadium, West Ham). “He was very good, he played a very professional game today which is what we are all accustomed to. He took a lot of good options, ran the football a fair bit and asked a few questions of their defence. He’s a champion of our game and champions of our game play well in the big matches and it was no difference today.”
Very good, very professional, good options, asked a few question. Hardly hyperbolic, but he was magnificent.
Smith and Thurston made their international debuts in 2006, Cronk a year later. Smith and Thurston are 33, with Cronk a year younger, so the game against New Zealand on Sunday at Anfield is probably the last time we shall seem them together in this country. Next year’s World Cup is the obvious stopping point, certainly at international level, so enjoy them while you can. Some may have been better, but surely there’s never been a better combination.