Kevin Brown's rugby league talking points: A tribute to Cooper Cronk, Salford's secret weapon and Super League Grand Final key battles
By Kevin Brown, Super League player
Last Updated: 09/10/19 6:09am
Kevin Brown is back with a look at some of the key rugby league talking points from these shores and beyond.
This week, the Warrington Wolves half-back pays tribute to Cooper Cronk, whose impressive career in Australia ended on a high after he helped Sydney Roosters secure back-to-back NRL triumphs.
There is a look at this Saturday's Super League Grand Final too, plus Salford Red Devils' secret weapon, what makes Jonny Lomax so key for St Helens and thoughts on Toronto Wolfpack's promotion...
Basics laid the foundation for Cronk
I'd like to start this week with last Sunday's NRL Grand Final, which saw Sydney Roosters overcome Canberra Raiders 14-8 to make it back-to-back titles.
There were a few tough calls on the night, but what a superb season all of Canberra's British players have had - and they've given Super League a real shot in the arm with the quality they've produced and we're all proud of them.
It was a great end to an NRL season and a fitting send-off for Cooper Cronk, who was playing his final match before retiring - and he'll obviously go down as one of the best players to ever play the game.
I was lucky enough to play against him a couple of times and sometimes you're blown away by sheer brilliance, but it wasn't that or breath-taking skill which hit me when I played against him. It was more his will to win, his competitiveness and how much effort he consistently put in.
There were no flick-passes or crazy footwork, he was just always there hitting you hard, kicking really well, squaring up and demanding more from his team-mates. The noise around him all game was the difference for me.
I played against Benji Marshall and Rangi Chase, and some of the stuff they'd do you couldn't defend against it. But Cronk did the basics better and more consistently than anyone else I've ever played against in defence and attack.
It just shows, if you do the basics well it's a tremendous blueprint for kids coming through.
A great story for whoever wins Grand Final
Closer to home now and what a game this Saturday's Super League Grand Final between St Helens and Salford Red Devils is going to be.
Whoever wins, it's going to be a remarkable story either way with head coach Justin Holbrook leaving on a Grand Final victory for St Helens or a true underdog story with Salford.
If the Red Devils do go on to triumph then it will be much bigger than Leicester City winning the Premier League or Andy Ruiz beating Anthony Joshua to win the world heavyweight title - I think it's that big.
If Salford win, I could potentially make my debut for them next year in a World Club Challenge game, which would be amazing.
Everyone wrote them off all year, but I'll be cheering them on this weekend.
Brown is Salford's secret weapon
Salford head coach Ian Watson demands - and gets - a lot out of his players, but it isn't always easy to do physically and it takes massive amounts of energy and fitness levels. That's not only to be good and expansive with the ball, but also to back it up with rock-solid defence and pressure.
I spoke with Gil Dudson this week. I played with him for four years and he was always a top professional and trained well, but he was never able to sustain such intensity for the periods of time he's currently producing.
Most of his team-mates at Salford have increased significantly and he put it down to a man I've had the pleasure of working with in Greg Brown, who's the Red Devils' conditioner.
He's a really demanding but compassionate person. He cares for his players and will do whatever is needed to make sure you're at the top of your fitness levels, whether that's a tap on the shoulder to do extras or body fat measurements weekly for the bigger players.
But Gil tells me the biggest difference he feels from when he's been at other clubs - and he's been at some big clubs and had lots of conditioners - is that Greg doesn't do a one-session-fits-all programme.
I've had lots of conditioners where, in general, it's a similar fitness session for everyone. But Salford have moved on from this and everything has become relatable to the demands of their specific positions.
For instance, Gil might do 25 to 30 tackles with loads of wrestle, so he'll need to be conditioned for that. Whereas Niall Evalds will need to run around 10 kilometres at a much high speed and make on three to five tackles.
The sessions they are doing are worlds apart. Gil tells me he's the fittest he's ever felt and he's ready for however the game plays out, which has given him so much confidence and self-belief.
If you couple that to the technical aspects of the coaching, you can see why Salford are having such a good season and have a great chance of going all the way in this Saturday's Grand Final at Old Trafford.
Lomax makes Saints tick
How do you beat St Helens? They're probably the best team I can remember in the modern game. They've won the league by a record tally and they cruised to victory in their play-off game against the current champions.
It's a really tough ask and I think the thing they do well is play as a team, and can genuinely attack you from anywhere. Last year they were a little bit reliant on Ben Barba, and this year Lachlan Coote has come in and just looks like one of another group of talented men.
Jonny Lomax really makes them tick, and I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with him on international duty. I roomed with him a bit and studied with him as well, and although I always knew he was a great player I never realised how much he thought about the game and how hard he works.
During the World Cup, he'd do a couple of rehab on his knee every day before we went to training. One day he was late for one of Wayne Bennett's meetings and walked in calmly and said 'sorry coach, I lost track of time on the last few sets'.
He got away with it because it's a bit better alibi than saying you overslept, so he didn't get Wayne's usual wrath! But witnessing the countless hours he has put in has been inspiring.
He told me how down he got with the knee injuries he had and he travelled to Ireland after his last operation to see a specialist, looking at everything from his feet, how he ran and how his pelvis was aligning to give him the best chance to stay clear of any problems.
If it wasn't for his total commitment, I'm sure we wouldn't be seeing such a talented, dynamic player as he is - and he and his team-mates are reaping their reward. If Saints are to win this weekend, Jonny will be at the heart of that and he'll be in the reckoning for the Harry Sunderland Trophy.
Super League Grand Final key battles
I've already mentioned Gil Dudson and, as a half-back, what he gives you time and space. He'll give you a quick play-the-ball and put the opposition on the back foot, which then lets you dictate on your terms and get the kick away.
He's up against probably the No 1 prop in the world for me in Luke Thompson, so that will be a fascinating battle in the forwards.
The battle between the full-backs, Niall Evalds and Lachlan Coote, is going to be an amazing one and they're both different types of players.
Lachlan is very experienced, very smart and organised, and a good kicker of the ball. Then you've got Niall, who is an athletic runner and can defend as well as anyone - which he showed in Salford's semi-final win over Wigan Warriors.
Then there's the battle on the wings between Tommy Makinson and Krisnan Inu. Both play remarkably well and they're taking carries like forwards - they've both getting consistently over 150 or 160 metres and taking 20-plus carries in games.
Ready to run with the Pack
Toronto Wolfpack were too classy on the day for Featherstone Rovers in last Saturday's Million Pound Game, but the most pleasing thing for me was seeing how many fans there were at the game.
We should all get really excited at how far they've come from nothing three years ago to having a fan base of around 10,000. The growth of the sport with the Wolfpack is something which should be celebrated.
Logistically, there will be challenges with them initially, but I'm sure it will be overcome and we'll get the best experience for Super League fans and players.
Looking at how Catalans Dragons have developed and enhanced our sport over the last decade, it's going to be a massive boost for Super League. As an older player who'll turn into a fan, I'm so excited to see teams like Toronto doing well.
Wolfpack head coach Brian McDermott's post-match comments struck a nerve with a few people. From my point of view, we want these clubs enhancing the game, not taking away from what we've already got, and I think that's what he was trying to say.
I've been over there as a player, and I feel when you get 10,000 fans and so many passionate supporters in that time it's exciting for me - and they're nearly all home fans.
If we want to grow as a sport, we need to look after our own and support rugby league's heartlands, but also embrace the new and move with the times.