By Craig Bellamy, The Australian

I found out about Cooper Cronk’s decision to leave Melbourne Storm a few days before everyone else.

When he asked me last week to meet him for a coffee away from our cafe at the club, I wasn’t expecting anything major. We’ve had coffee before to chat about things, just the two of us. But I certainly wasn’t thinking he was about to leave us by not taking up the option on the second year of his contract.

To be quite honest I wasn’t aware of the timing for the option, that it had to happen so early in the season. But even if it was a straight two-year deal, and he told me all the reasons why he wanted to leave, I would have been all for it because of what he’s done for this club.

So it was a shock and I knew the players would feel that way too. Cooper wasn’t sure what the right time would be to tell his teammates. He wanted to tell Billy Slater and Cameron Smith before telling the players, they have a unique bond.

We decided to keep things quiet ahead of the Penrith match last Saturday night because it was such a big game for our club.

Cameron was about to become the player with the most NRL wins, passing Darren Lockyer, and Cooper himself was to pass Terry Lamb in third spot.

Cooper didn’t see that as a really big deal but I explained to him it was pretty important and I saw it as a pretty big deal. When you’re younger you don’t remember the past, or you don’t know it. But I remember Terry Lamb. He seemed to play forever.

When he was at Western Suburbs as a 17-year-old, that was freakish. Teenagers didn’t play first grade too much back in those days. That opportunity usually came in your early 20s.

At the time Wests were going through a really tough period but there was this 17-year-old kid out there mixing it with the best of them. I remember playing against him for the first time in 1982 when I came into grade, and in my opinion he’s one of the best club football players we’ve ever seen. He was one hell of a competitor; he had longevity; he just had wonderful game sense.

So for a guy who I’m coaching to go past Terry Lamb is quite incredible. Cooper looked at his achievement in a different light after I gave him my Terry Lamb speech.

So I didn’t think it was the right time to announce to the club or the public that Cooper would be leaving Storm ahead of that game. We decided to leave it for a few days, concentrate on getting ready for the weekend game, and then tell everyone.

I didn’t think he’d change his mind, even after having a few more days to think it over again. Cooper is the sort of guy that once he’s reached a decision, he sticks with it.

I’m not sure if stubborn is the right word, but he usually takes his time to mull something over. But once he’s got to a conclusion, there he stays.

I’d imagine he and his fiancée Tara had tossed it for quite a while, so I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it. No-one would change his mind once it was made up and I understand exactly where he was coming from.

I never saw any signs of it distracting him from his football. He has never particularly liked the limelight so he’s always been a fairly private individual. So I didn’t realise that all the travelling to-and-from Sydney was getting to him. Cooper is very good at compartmentalising things. If it’s training, a meeting, playing, Cooper has a job to do and is always switched on.

When he goes home, he switches off and then can try to lead a normal life like the rest of us.

So now the club will make plans for post-Cooper. Our recruitment and retention committee met yesterday. There will be more meetings and more discussions as we come up with a plan for the future. I can’t see it getting sorted overnight. We have to see who is available, how much we’ve got to spend, how it affects other positions and we have a couple of young halves in our Club with plenty of potential.

When we lose players, I give my thoughts on the way I’d like to go. But I can’t let it occupy me 100 per cent as I’ve got a team to coach. It will be a collective effort to sort it out but I’ve got to concentrate on my primary job and so do the players.

In a month’s time let’s look back and see how many stories and theories relating to Cooper Cronk’s future have been aired. I’m thinking he will be linked with plenty of the Sydney-based clubs in that time. It’s already started.

Cooper said himself he needed a couple of months before he works out if he wants to play again. So strap yourselves in for a lot of media space being devoted to Cooper’s future, some will be true and some untrue. Whatever Cooper decides his future to be, he will do it with class, just as he always has.

Craig Bellamy is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.



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