Slater's NRL fairytale folds amid Cronk's puppetry masterpiece

SYDNEY, Australia -- The stage was set at 6:25pm when the ground announcer confirmed that Cooper Cronk would take his place in the Roosters starting line-up. The largely Roosters-biased crowd roared its approval. Shortly after, as a list of retiring players was read out, a deafening boo greeted Billy Slater's name.

It would be a classic clash between hero and villain. Two great mates who have shared so much success over years, pitted against each other on the NRL's biggest stage.

Opposition fans always target the players most likely to do damage to their team's chances, but this was different. Slater's mid-week reprieve from a shoulder charge suspension intensified the ill-feeling towards one the best fullbacks to ever play the game. Meanwhile, Cronk's status was elevated to superhero after he somehow managed to overcome what was later revealed to be a fractured scapula to take the field.

Cronk didn't touch the ball during the Roosters' first two sets of six. He defended one in from the right wing and his left arm was stuck noticeably at a ridged angle beside his body. The Roosters led 2-0 and Cronk hadn't made a tackle either. Five-and-a-half minutes into the game and he joined a three man Roosters tackle to drive back a Storm ball-runner.

Seven minutes into the game and Cronk was hit late after putting up a kick. The crowd winced, then booed, but the veteran playmaker climbed to his feet to continue.

At the other end of the field the villain was receiving ear-rattling boos every time he handled the ball, the cheers were even louder every time he was slammed into the turf. After their first try, the Roosters fans even started a chant once reserved for Wally Lewis at State of Origin time.

After 15 minutes Cronk put up another high kick, again he was punished in the tackle, but the Storm fumbled and shortly after the Roosters were in for their second try and a 12-0 lead. The Roosters were well on top, powering through the middle with the ball and punishing the Storm in defence.

Cronk wasn't touching the ball as much as he would normally, but he was doing plenty of talking and pointing with his good arm. He was being well guarded in the defensive line by centre Joseph Manu and the man in the No.7 jersey Mitchell Aubusson. At times towards halftime Cronk was dropping out of the line in a sweeping role on that right side.

With 10 minutes to go in the half, Jake Friend scooped up the ball from a Storm mistake and raced away. Cameron Munster ran back to cover in defence but held Friend down too long, earning himself 10 minutes in the bin. The crowd roared again.

The Roosters went to halftime with a 14-0 lead on the back of an incredible defensive effort; the Sydney defenders were swarming and hitting the Storm runners in numbers.

The Storm started the second half with much more intensity and looked dangerous at times, but still the Roosters withstood their charges. Ten minutes in, the Storm worked the ball wide on halfway and Cronk had to combine with Manu to make a solid tackle. His left arm still rigid at his side.

The Storm needed to score first in the second half, but the only way through the Roosters line was for Nelson Asofa-Solomona to obstruct Cronk, allowing Cameron Munster to cross for a try that was disallowed. Their only try came through a Josh Addo-Carr intercept on his own 20-metre line.

Slater was still being booed with every involvement. With ten minutes remaining the Roosters set for a field goal to take their lead out to 13 points. The ball was passed back to Luke Keary, while Slater charged through to pressure the kick only to fall to the ground. The kick was successful as Slater protested that he had been obstructed by Victor Radley. The crowd booed Billy and the video bunker decided that Radley's leg was stationery when Slater tripped over it. The crowd jeered.

Then, with two minutes remaining and the premiership sewn up Cronk walked gingerly to the touch line, clutching his left arm. The crowd roared its approval of a herculean effort.

Cronk wasn't man-of-the-match; that honour went to his halves partner Luke Keary. The former Queensland Origin general didn't have that much of an impact on the game, other than through his mere presence.

He joined the Roosters this year with the promise of taking the club to the top during his two-year contract. He delivered in his first year, playing the grand final with a busted shoulder, and that is something we can all cheer.