Kent: Grand final two decades in the making
COOPER Cronk and Cameron Smith have barely spoken since Cronk signed with the Sydney Roosters.
There's not much evidence to see it changing.
The silence began not when Cronk announced he was leaving Melbourne to get married and live in Sydney with his new wife, the lovely Tara Rushton, but later, when he signed with a team actually capable of beating Melbourne.
It was all dandy and sweet so long as it looked like Cronk might sign with Wests Tigers, or Newcastle, or even Souths at the time, who struggled home in 12th spot.
The signature on a Roosters contract changed everything.
Few stand in the way of Cameron Smith and ambition, as Cronk discovered.
The rivalry is another subtext in a grand final with forty different narratives, bringing together the two biggest rivalries personally, and professionally, in the game.
Rivalries are the magic dust in every great sport.
The Billy Slater charge and ongoing doubt over Cronk have contributed to take the gloss off what should be the biggest grand final in NRL history.
The Roosters and the Storm are fighting for more than just a premiership on Sunday.
The storylines could not be more perfect.
Slater in his final game ever. Cronk against the team he helped build into a powerhouse before walking away last season, the bitter fallout with his ex-captain Smith.
Cronk signed with the Roosters days into last year's Rugby League World Cup and was immediately frozen out by Smith.
It impacted only briefly their on-field relationship but weighed heavily in camp.
Now, they bring together the two dominant clubs of the NRL era.
Between them, Melbourne and Sydney have played in 14 of the 19 grand finals so far played.
Yet it lacks the magic of South Sydney's appearance in 2014, or the all-Queensland decider a year later when the Cowboys took their first premiership over a game Brisbane.
Their appearance Sunday takes it to 15 of 20 grand finals, a neat 75 per cent.
In any language, that is domination.
Sunday is Federer-Nadal, Yankees-Red Sox with all the trim.
As Jerry Izenberg once said before Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were about to step into the ring in Manila, for the Thrilla: "They are fighting for the heavyweight championship of each other".
Rugby league has seldom been so lucky.
The two dominant teams of the 1980s were Canterbury and Parramatta, who won four premierships each.
The Bulldogs began the decade taking out the 1980 grand final under a brand of footy widely celebrated as The Entertainers.
The Eels took that and raised them one, Jack Gibson's Electric Eels winning three straight from 1981-83 before the Bulldogs came back, rebranded, as the Dogs of War under Warren Ryan, to take the premiership in 1984-85.
The game got its wish the following year when Parramatta and Canterbury squared up in the 1986 grand final.
It was the one everybody wanted and was as tough as you could imagine, the Eels prevailing in the game's only tryless grand final, 4-2.
In the 1990s rugby league was not so lucky.
The two best teams of the '90s were Brisbane and Canberra but they never played a grand final against each other.
The following decade, the noughties, began with the Roosters and Canterbury dominating but saw Canterbury lose ground to Melbourne, who closed out the decade with four straight grand finals.
The Roosters (2000, 02-04) won one from four while Melbourne (2006-09) took home two - only to be forced to give them back when busted cheating the salary cap.
Melbourne has maintained its success throughout this decade through the constants of coach Craig Bellamy and three, which became two, champion players.
Smith made his debut in 2002 and fullback Slater a year later and their impact has remained deep into the next decade where Melbourne has now qualified for its fourth decider since 2010.
The Roosters have qualified for their third.
The third champion for Melbourne throughout their emergence was obviously Cronk, who now fights the clock to be fit for Sunday's decider, for the Roosters, against his old team.
The only time they met earlier this season was round 16. Melbourne won 9-8 but the headlines were overtaken by Cronk snubbing Smith after the game, offering a fast handshake as Smith moved in for a pretend hug.