Where Cooper Cronk could end up in 2018
COOPER Cronk has sent Sydney clubs into meltdown by sensationally announcing he will move to the Harbour City in 2018, ending his 14-year career at the Storm.
Just last year Cronk inked a $2 million, two-year deal to commit his entire career to Melbourne.
On Tuesday, he revealed the second year of that contract was in his favour and he would turn down the only club he has ever known to turn the player market on its head.
With fiancee and Fox Sports presenter Tara Rushton based in Sydney, as well as growing media commitments of his own, Brisbane boy Cronk will now make his home behind enemy lines.
With 306 appearances since debuting in 2004, Cronk will become just the second triple centurion to change clubs after Paul Langmack left Wests to join the Roosters in 1998.
It is the first time a 300-game, one-club player has gone to market in rugby league's 109-year history.
Cronk's decision will end his long club association with great mates Cam Smith and Billy Slater after well over a decade together as one of the most illustrious trios in rugby league history.
He will also part ways with Craig Bellamy, the master mentor who took a punt on playing him at the scrum base in 2006 and ended up with one of the best halfbacks the game has seen.
Cronk paid tribute to the trio on Tuesday, labelling them the club's "real" Big Three.
"To Craig, Cameron and Billy. (People) talk about 'the Big Three' but in my eyes they're the real 'Big Three'," an emotional Cronk said at Tuesday's press conference.
"I'm a distant relative if you talk about those three in terms of the contribution you make to this football club. They're the three most influential people in this club's history.
"As long they're here, whether I'm here or not, there'll be guaranteed success because one, they're very good at what they do; two, their work ethic and their desire for success.
"Whether I'm here or not, Storm members will be guaranteed success having those three guys here."
As recently as last week Cronk shot down suggestions he was planning to retire, reiterating his commitment to the Storm that was made despite lucrative approaches from the Dragons and Rabbitohs midway through 2016.
The star No.7 remains well and truly at the top of his game, claiming a second Dally M Medal and his first Golden Boot award last season as Melbourne powered to a fifth grand final appearance during his time at the club.
As to where Cronk winds up next season, all the 33-year-old was willing to reveal is that he wants to continue playing - but he won't come cheap.
"In terms of what happens next, I sit here today (and to be) completely honest I actually don't know," he added.
"What I do next year is up in the air but I feel fit enough, I feel mentally strong enough to continue playing.
"I've been wrestling with this decision about playing on or not playing on here in Melbourne and up until this point that's the only thing I've been thinking about."
Complicating matters as well is the uncertainty around the 2018 salary cap, with suggestions clubs may be forced to shed players if the final figure lands at a mooted $8.84 million, well short of the $9 million-$10 million some outfits have been budgeting for.
Parramatta is one club with cash to spend thanks to the war chest in excess of $1 million left by Kieran Foran's release.
The spines at Canterbury and Wests Tigers - who locked in Des Hasler and Ivan Cleary as their long-term coaches on Monday - also remain up in the air next season as both clubs sort out messy roster and salary cap situations.
While the Rabbitohs are understood to have been seriously interested in the Maroons and Kangaroos playmaker this time last year, they have since re-signed NSW Origin No.7 Adam Reynolds until the end of 2021.
The Dragons may also be out of the running having gone all in on Ben Hunt for 2018, to the tune of $6 million across a five-year deal with an option for a sixth.
Skipper and five-eighth Gareth Widdop does however remain off-contract, while funds may also be freed up if Josh Dugan chooses to pursue his $1 million asking price - which the Dragons' current offer falls short of by about $250,000 - elsewhere.
While Cronk's long-time representative teammate Johnathan Thurston has confirmed 2017 will be his last Origin and Kangaroos campaigns, Cronk has no intention of wrapping up his rep commitments before he retires from club duty.