Cronk clone shines as Storm wraps up minor premiership
A HAT-TRICK from Cooper Cronk's heir apparent Brodie Croft has secured back-to-back minor premierships for the Storm, and bodes well for a few more yet down the track.
While Cronk was kept on ice for the 44-12 defeat of a Knights side better than the final margin indicated, the uncanny parallels between Croft and his mentor could not be missed.
Croft's treble and two assists ensures another $100,000 for the Storm coffers and the J.J. Giltinan Shield stays in Melbourne for an astonishing sixth time in 11 seasons, with three of course scratched for salary cap rorting, but Cronk steering from the scrumbase in each.
In 2018 the 34-year-old won't be on hand, but Croft's running game showed serious shades of Cronk's own the last time Melbourne were this dominant - finishing top of the '06 and '07 tables with an indomitable 44 competition points.
Two more wins against Souths and Canberra will see the Storm reach that heady high water mark once more in 2017, while this latest triumph on the road secures an 11-1 away record - the best in their history.
If Croft, 20 years old as of last month, continues at his current rate, then the indomitable purple tide won't be falling too far even without Cronk at the helm.
Not least because the likes of Cam Smith, Will Chambers and Billy Slater, who is in talks with the club around a one-year extension, aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
For Croft in the here and now, lining up alongside his childhood heroes trumped his maiden hat-trick on the highlights reel.
"It was a surreal feeling to be on a field for the first time with Slats, Smithy and Chambers," Croft told Fox Sports afterwards.
"They're the sort of players you look up to as a kid ... I pinched myself before I ran out here and it was just a good game to be a part of."
While the youngster started by being belted into next week by Jacob Saifiti and bouncing back to the present just as quickly, it was foolish contact from Jesse Bromwich that landed the opposing prop in the bin with just 100 seconds gone on the clock.
Bromwich changed tact to take out Jamie Buhrer as he chased a grubber, with the foul play enough to earn him a 10 minute breather, but not a penalty try.
Lachlan Fitzgibbon made short work of ramming home the surprise advantage though, bulldozing down the same right edge channel that he has made his own in the past month for first points.
But the Storm had their own in quick time when Curtis Scott was on hand to clean up the scraps from a Croft bomb.
As both sides went end-to-end Dale Finucane went in under the posts from a Cameron Smith short ball, claiming a 10-6 advantage after 21 minutes.
The drama continued when Josh Addo-Carr put a toe on the touchline to be denied at one end, and Trent Hodkinson put down a pass just metres out at the other.
Without Cronk Melbourne's ends to sets lacked polish. But with Cronk's famed sleight of hand, Croft ensured it mattered nought, sliding through with a show and go from close range in the shadows of halftime.
Newcastle lost skipper Sione Mata'utia to concussion but gained a howling wind that played havoc with anything off the boot after the break.
The elements didn't do Croft's kicking game any favours, but when he put the foot to the floor from 30 out he had his second of the afternoon and the Storm a 22-6 lead.
A bust from Fitzgibbon and support from Joe Wardle trimmed that back, only for a right side shift with Croft involved again in sending Will Chambers over.
Another for Croft and late tries from Suliasi Vunivalu and Nelson Asofa-Solomona, the former thanks to a Croft cut-out ball, the latter a crushing run from 40 out blew the final margin well beyond the Knights.
It also keeps them rooted to the base of the ladder and tracking for a third straight wooden spoon, as Melbourne takes an unassailable lead at the other end.