LOVE STORY

RUGBY LEAGUE STAR COOPER CRONK WAS EX­PECTED TO STAY ON THE FIELD FOR YEARS TO COME. BUT HE LIS­TENED TO HIS HEART, AND IT IS ABOUT TO LEAD HIM TO A VERY DIF­FER­ENT PLACE

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy DAVID CAIRD Styling GEMMA KEIL Words JONATHON MO­RAN

Why Cooper Cronk chose love over rugby league.

In the world of footy, men are men. Women? They are wives, moth­ers, nurses, cooks, ther­a­pists and cheer­lead­ers – but rarely equal part­ners. Off the field, what Cooper Cronk did would barely have raised an eye­brow. To every­body else, it was a show-stop­ping move.

That’s be­cause Cronk, 33, gave up his job – and it’s not just any job – for love. Cronk is rugby league roy­alty in Melbourne, a two-time win­ner of the Dally M Medal (awarded yearly to the best and fairest player in the NRL) who has played for Melbourne Storm since 2004. He was, by all ac­counts, ex­pected to fin­ish his ca­reer wear­ing their gold, pur­ple, navy and white uni­form – just not nearly this soon.

But when he met Fox Sports pre­sen­ter Tara Rush­ton, sud­denly all of the glory he reg­u­larly achieved on the field didn’t quite mat­ter so much any­more. What did mat­ter was be­ing in the same city as the woman he had fallen in love with. What took prece­dence was her life, her feel­ings, and her ca­reer.

Cronk shocked the NRL in April, an­nounc­ing that he would quit the team and head north to Syd­ney. Later this year he will fin­ish out his con­tract with the team and pack his bags. He has not yet made an an­nounce­ment – let alone a de­ci­sion – on play­ing for a new team.

Nor is he in any seem­ing rush to do so. “It is a long year of NRL and hope­fully of rep­re­sen­ta­tive footy yet to be had,” he reck­ons. “Once I get through that, I can con­tem­plate the next state. My longterm goal is to con­tinue to play rugby league at the high­est level as long as my body is in good shape and my form war­rants se­lec­tion. But at this very mo­ment? No, I am not yet sure I will con­tinue to play be­yond 2017… but if I do, it will be in Syd­ney.”

CRONK IS CLEARLY a man in love. While com­mit­ted to the cur­rent sea­son, his per­sonal fo­cus stays very much homed in on Rush­ton. The pair, who were first ru­moured to be a cou­ple in June 2015, spend what­ever free time they have to­gether, whether in Melbourne, Syd­ney or his home­town of Bris­bane.

It was dur­ing last year’s Christ­mas and New Year hol­i­days that Cronk de­cided to pro­pose. The pair shared their “ex­tra spe­cial” news in Jan­uary, with Rush­ton later seen in so­cial me­dia snaps sport­ing a large sparkling di­a­mond en­gage­ment ring. But that’s about all you will get from them when it comes to de­tails. They pre­fer to stay pri­vate, and are loath to share much about how it all played out.

“A gen­tle­man never tells,” teases Cronk, who will only re­veal, “it was a very spe­cial day, one we will re­mem­ber for­ever.” They have yet to start plan­ning their wed­ding, but that is also ex­pected to be low-key – much like his pre­dic­tion for the day. “I’m not sure where or when we will get mar­ried, but as long as our near­est and dear­est are there, I’m sure it will be a mem­o­rable day for ev­ery­one,” he says.

For now, though, Cronk re­mains fo­cused on the game. He took time out from a gru­elling train­ing sched­ule to shoot ex­clu­sively for Stel­lar, step­ping far out­side his com­fort zone to suit up and chan­nel a few of his idols. He de­scribes his per­sonal style as ca­sual and re­laxed, and ad­mits that he is not con­vinced of his abil­ity to model. “I don’t mind it, but I need all the help I can get!” he says. “I ap­pre­ci­ate good style and nice clothes – but 100 per cent pre­fer to be on the foot­ball field.”

Asked for his style in­flu­ences, Cronk says, “David Beck­ham is the first name that comes to mind.” He then shoots a cheeky smile and adds, “Maybe Ge­orge Clooney in a few years’ time. I ac­tu­ally like what [Amer­i­can bas­ket­baller] Lebron James is wear­ing these days. I would love to turn up to one of our games in what­ever dress we would like as op­posed to team is­sue.”

``I´ve got so much to look for­ward to, no mat­ter what hap­pens´´

Out­side of sport, Cronk’s big­gest in­ter­est is ob­vi­ously Rush­ton. “Most of my spare time is spent in­ter­state see­ing Tara,” he ad­mits. “[But] I don’t mind catch­ing a live mu­sic gig with my mates from time to time.” And when they’re not do­ing that? His an­swer is peak Melbourne. “Search­ing for the best cafes and cof­fee places in and around Rich­mond!”

CRONK IS AN anom­aly amid the rough and tum­ble rugby league. You won’t find him in pubs or clubs – he is the keeper of a squeaky-clean im­age, the kind of big-name player least likely to end up caught in a head­line-grab­bing scan­dal of his own mak­ing. He is loyal, declar­ing that he would hap­pily re­turn to coach Melbourne Storm play­ers in the fu­ture. He is also elo­quent and good-look­ing, two at­tributes that will serve him well if he de­cides to go into sports broad­cast­ing full-time like his fi­ancée. (He al­ready does some work with Fox Sports.)

Cronk also cites busi­ness school as a po­ten­tial next step. He is al­ways plan­ning ahead – he plays sport, af­ter all; if a player does not end a ca­reer on their own ac­cord, a fate­ful in­jury just might do it for them. “There’s no doubt pro­fes­sional ath­letes have to have tun­nel vi­sion – to a point – to achieve their goals,” he says. “But we also need to be aware that the dream doesn’t last for­ever. Sur­round­ing your­self with good peo­ple and putting in a plan is vi­tal for when that time comes.”

Still, any talk of re­tire­ment – let alone the par­lour game around which Syd­ney team he might ul­ti­mately choose to play for – is not some­thing he is will­ing to en­ter­tain. “Next year hon­estly doesn’t play on my mind at all,” he says con­fi­dently. “I have been blessed to have the ca­reer I’ve had. Some­times we get lost chas­ing what we don’t have – as op­posed to be­ing grate­ful for what we do.”

With State of Ori­gin now fin­ished, Cronk will fo­cus on fin­ish­ing out his sea­son with the Storm and, in Oc­to­ber, play­ing for Aus­tralia in the Rugby League World Cup. He may be mak­ing a life-chang­ing move in the name of love, but he is clear about the fact he will see through his pro­fes­sional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for the ex­act same rea­son.

“I’ve got so much to look for­ward to,” Cronk says. “And no mat­ter what hap­pens next year, my com­mit­ment and ded­i­ca­tion to my team­mates, and all those teams, will never wa­ver.”

COOPER WEARS Ven­roy jacket, knit and pants, ven­roy.com.au

COOPER WEARS Coun­try Road knit and pants, coun­try­road.com.au; R.M. Wil­liams boots, rmwilliams.com.au GROOM­ING Zoe Karlis SHOT ON LO­CA­TION at Art Se­ries Ho­tel – The Cullen, Prahran, Melbourne

GAME OF LIFE (clock­wise from left) Cooper Cronk will re­lo­cate to Syd­ney month; with fu­ture wife Tara Rush­ton at last year’s Dally M Awards.

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