Two years ago the words “A star is born at AAMI Park!” were heard as the gushing accolade for a teenager who in just his second NRL game, coolly as you like, sunk the match winning Golden Point field goal.
That teenager, of course, was Brodie Croft. He only appeared one more time that year wearing the jersey that for 12 seasons had been wrapped around the torso of superstar Cooper Cronk.
Then, in his first official outing as the successor to the great halfback, he produced a near man-of-the-match performance against Leeds in the World Cup Challenge.
And yet after just five games into the season he was gone from the team. An error-riddled Storm found themselves tenth on the ladder and much of it was put down to Croft overplaying his hand, and his lack of structure.
A more subdued and “solid” Croft eventually returned to the team and played in the grand final against his former mentor.
But then after playing the first 22 rounds of this season – just three from the finals – for a team on the verge of the minor premiership, he was dropped again.
As everyone knows, no player makes it at the Melbourne Storm if they don’t put the effort in.
That’s why when Croft heard Bellamy’s media explanation for the decision (“It gave me no pleasure. The kid tries hard”) he knew his time was up.
The star has talent and tries hard, but it’s not enough.
And notice the sad replacement of the word ‘star’ with ‘kid’.
In the final game against the Cowboys when Croft was recalled to “warm the rested Cameron Munster’s No.6 jersey” Gus Gould asked Billy Slater: “What do you make of this young fella Brodie Croft Billy. Still developing?”
And of course it’s not really all about the performances of Croft. It’s also about the rise of a superstar whose ascendancy, it seems, will result in the dimming of the star that shone so briefly at AAMI Park two years ago.
Oh yes, Ryan Papenhuyzen. The skinny “third string” fullback whose plutonium-powered entry on to the big stage (112 avg running metres, over 200 avg running metres as starting fullback, eight tries, 13 linebreaks, 59 tackle busts) has the Wests Tigers reliving the same mortal dread they feel every time they watch another of their bargain priced products Josh Addo-Carr streak down the field.
If his slight frame and disconcerting tendency to bend his neck in tackles don’t prove his undoing, he’s going to get better. Although, other than gaining strength, I don’t see all that much room for improvement.
Exhilarating acceleration and top end speed combined with an impressive cardio capacity, he already has a deft late offload. During his Round 9 dismantling of Parramatta just watch the break he made, with the monster Blake Ferguson bearing down on him, that sent Addo-Carr to the tryline
But what happened to Brodie Croft? That combination of fluency, sleight of hand and bristling confidence exhibited against Leeds has not been seen since.
A linebreak or two, even a brilliant try scoring one, but the underwhelming nature of his tenure brought murmurings from greats like Johnathan Thurston who has been a constant but well meaning critic of both his defensive and playmaking performances, and from the club’s own supporters. I’m reluctant to admit that I called for his axing midseason for Hughes and Papenhuyzen. It has been the right call, but an unfortunate one.
He is strongly built and at the height to nail a large forward around the hips or legs. But if he he isn’t in the perfect position could also be run over, a common scenario this season while defending his tryline; a defensive weakness that his replacement Jahrome Hughes doesn’t appear to share.
He seems timid and uncertain with ball in hand. Often almost just handing it off to the nearest runner while Smith and Cameron Munster run the plays, attack the line and execute the offloads and cutout passes. He would take the planned dutiful kicks on the last tackle and into touch.
Is Cameron Smith part of the problem?
Since Croft’s axing last season Smith clearly imposed himself on the playmaking to the extent that he is now a hooker and a half back. Croft – once an exuberant precocious playmaker exhilarated at the prospect of steering the greatest team of the modern era – has become a mere foot soldier under General Smith.
In an on-ground interview after the Anzac Day clash against the Warriors in which the Storm luckily scraped home, Smith jovially responded to a question about Croft’s match sealing field goal that would have embarrassed the young halfback: “I came across to play the ball and I saw Brodie sprinting across to our left-hand side where Cameron Munster already was. So I turned around and I said, ‘Get over here and kick the field goal!’”
He did but only after it deflected off the upright. His response wasn’t one of euphoria, or even of relief. More, a withering self belief and a little simmering resentment towards his skipper.
He mentioned mid-season about seeking professional advice on confidence issues.
Storm’s partly enforced developmental model provides exciting times for supporters to see players slowly emerge but also to feel stress at the inevitability of losing some to calls from home and big contracts.
The sad fate of Croft has coincided with the inspiring story of Max King. A couple of months ago the forward was withering away in reserve grade for the wooden spooner Titans and now he is a finals player for the Minor Premiers: “Every Game I play I go back and think on everything that has happened and I get a bit emotional. It is crazy how it has happened so quickly and I appreciate every opportunity I have been given”
But back to Croft. Did he exceed expectations too early? Has the pressure of having Cooper Johns and Billy Walters, sons of legends, breathing down his neck and wearing Cronk’s no.7 jersey proven too much?
Ironically, with his confidence shot, what he most needs are some words from his predecessor, one of the mentally toughest players of all time.
Many have said he needs more time, that he is still learning.
But perhaps he just doesn’t fit in this team. The Melbourne Storm may not be for everyone. “Just playing your role” doesn’t suit the natural game of some. It can be stifling and self defeating for a ball playing half
In light of the astute recruitment of five eighth Brett Finch and imminent rise of the Victorian raised Englishman Gareth Widdop, he left for the Warriors and it was then that I knew what to think of him.
Two years later he was instrumental in knocking out his former team in a preliminary final and went on to claim a premiership with the Roosters and then to deliver a second reason for Storm to lament a lost recruiting opportunity by denying them a premiership with Cronulla’s historic 2016 grand final victory.
James Maloney is a winner and even more so against the Storm. But at least they helped him be one. On the eve of that 2016 grand final he admitted: “I learnt a lot about footy down there. It was a big part of me going down there”.
Maybe it’s time for you to go too Brodie. Like Maloney, Widdop and Cody Walker before you who moved on to become creative dominant playmakers, and prospered.
If you do, I wish you the best.
But please don’t play well against the Storm; your former mentor has caused it enough grief.
Originally published on THE ROAR