Thurston v Cronk: A Fantasy King Investigation

Filed in Uncategorized by on March 21, 2013

By Mick Adams

Let’s talk about Cooper Cronk. Following on from his dismantling of the Cowboys on Saturday night there has been a lot of philosophising on his standing in the game, particularly as it compares to his only serious rival for best half in football today, Johnathan Thurston. He’s a funny one, Cronk. As good as he undoubtedly is, I’ve always (perhaps without any real statistical basis) considered him more of a “system” halfback, one who has thrived in a well-coached, highly drilled outfit, with the not inconsiderable advantage of being able to pass to one of the most dangerous hole finders the game has seen. For this reason he unquestionably made the right move in re-signing with Melbourne last year, but it would have been interesting to see how he would have fared had he taken up with one of his suitors in the Titans or the Dragons. I guess my point is that as good as he has been, he is not one you immediately think of when looking for a player with that rare ability to command a game with otherworldly talent and innate mental capacity

It would seem though that Cronk has taken a significant step forward. It’s dangerous to draw too many parallels between fantasy football and the real thing- if we did Corey Parker would be a five-time golden boot winner- and yet it is surely no coincidence that his fantasy worth in the last couple of seasons has skyrocketed. And if we have not yet seen a passing of the torch from Thurston to his Queensland and Australian halves partner, in fantasy terms they are neck and neck. Cronk actually outscored Thurston (just) in terms of total points and average last season, and outpointed him in nearly every relevant statistical measure (all stats are per game averages):

Averaged 6 more tackles and 1 fewer missed tackle

Averaged 1.73 assists to Thurston’s 1.00

Averaged 0.2 penalties to Thurston’s 0.5

Averaged 0.7 errors to Thurston’s 1.4

Thurston’s edge – and the reason they were so close in Supercoach Averages (59.9 to 59.6) despite Cronk’s statistical dominance – is his undoubted superiority in the running game. This was the case even before his switch to five eighth, ironically a move made to accommodate Cronk in the Queensland and Australian line ups, and has only become more obvious. Thurston averaged 3 runs per game more than Cronk, and was significantly ahead in tackle breaks, line breaks and offloads as well. It is perhaps this natural attacking flair which puts him ahead of Cronk in many observers’ eyes (including mine). 

After two rounds in 2013, the statistical trends of last year have held up. Cronk is busier in defence and less likely to commit errors and give away penalties. He had a much better kicking game than Thurston in 2012, and this year is already on the board for forced dropouts and 40/20s. JT is yet to trouble the scorers on either count. Thurston’s running game remains much more dynamic than Cronk’s however. It seems that they all but cancel each other out by any basic measure of analysis, but some more nuanced metrics may help to sort this out. For the sake of comparison I’ve thrown a random sampling of ten other NRL halves:

Supercoach points in wins vs. Supercoach points in losses (2012 per game averages)

Maloney               74.00                      Carney                  53.80

Pearce                  73.88                     Marshall               51.75

Thurston              71.33                      Thurston              45.60

Cronk                    65.41                     Pearce                  45.57

Marshall               64.48                     Cronk                    44.33

Wallace                63.70                     Johnson               43.86    

Carney                  60.80                     Maloney               41.69

J Reynolds           57.79                    J Reynolds           39.00

Cherry-Evans       56.00                     Cherry-Evans        36.25

A Reynolds          53.44                     A Reynolds           36.00

Johnson               52.63                     Wallace                35.58

Soward                 42.89                     Soward                 32.20


By the numbers it’s a clear victory for Thurston, and perhaps further fuel for the argument that Cronk’s worth might need to be qualified by the fact that he plays in an exceptionally good team. The fact that he outscored Thurston in total fantasy points despite averaging less points per game in both victories and defeats makes you wonder how much Thurston’s fantasy value would increase if the Cowboys ever pulled their fingers out and put together a season befitting their undoubted potential.

The surprisingly high totals posted by Maloney and Pearce when in winning teams demonstrate how important winning is to value as a fantasy playmaker. Witness Benji Marshall’s slide in fantasy between 2010 and the present as Exhibit A. Marshall is still one of the best halves in fantasy, but is just as likely to post a mediocre 30 or 40 as he is to light it up with a 100+ Supercoach tally as he did against the Panthers on the weekend.  

So where does this leave Thurston and Cronk? The Cowboys have always been a punters’ nightmare, notably only making one finals appearance in the five years following their grand final run of 2005. They have an awesome forward pack, but are lacking in talent and creativity elsewhere. Bowen is still electric despite his advancing years, while the rest of their backline is serviceable to good, without that real standout back. I do like Kane Linnett though. Given his terrific form to start the year with the Panthers, Segeyaro is a big loss. As a result, Thurston’s fantasy value rests in his ability to once again carry the team into the finals. Certainly not a task beyond him, but a bit of help would go a long way.

Not much needs to be said about the Storm’s winning formula, and with Cronk’s retention recently followed by the re-signing of his coach, there is no reason to think anything will change in the next few seasons. Smith and Slater still have good years left in them, and the disparity in talent between the “Big Three” and the rest of the squad is much smaller than it has been in other years. This team is perhaps as good as it was in 2007, when the likes of Inglis, Folau, Crocker and Dallas Johnson lined up alongside Smith and co. Widdop, Chambers and Hinchcliffe are particularly impressive.

In short, Thurston’s dominance at the Cowboys makes his abilities stand out a lot easier than Cronk, who functions more as a vitally important cog in a highly efficient machine. This makes the latter’s standing in the game relative to Thurston a lot harder to quantify, leading to uninformed idiots like me calling him a system halfback. As far as fantasy goes however, given the stated importance of winning games for the fantasy value of playmakers however, I feel Cronk has the edge. The Cowboys may well improve on last year’s inconsistency, but does anyone seriously think they will win more games than the Storm?


Supercoach points when team scores 20+ vs. under 20

                 20+                                            20-

Carney                  77.00                     Thurston              46.55

Thurston              72.73                     Marshall               44.90

Cronk                    68.73                     Carney                  44.17

Pearce                  68.84                     Cronk                    43.38

Marshall               67.64                     Pearce                  43.09

Maloney               64.00                      Cherry-Evans      41.45

Wallace                58.30                     Maloney              40.92

J Reynolds           57.79                     Wallace              40.08

Cherry-Evans      56.15                     J Reynolds           39.00

A Reynolds          56.07                     Johnson               38.82

Soward                 52.57                     A Reynolds         33.56

Johnson               52.40                     Soward                28.33

Again, the victory would seemingly go to Thurston, with the only possible qualifier being that the Storm achieved the feat on four occasions more than the Cowboys. Interestingly, neither team lost a game in which they scored 20 points or more in 2012. Again it’s not a trend that’s likely to alter too much in 2013. Both teams have the ability to put on points but again the Melbourne machine might give Cronk the advantage. When the Cowboys do score more than 20 though you can guarantee that Thurston has played a major role, so if they can improve upon the 11 games in which they scored 20+ last year, JT will be well on the way to securing his position as the most effective playmaker in fantasy.


The Origin Period

The middle third of the season is a massive problem that the NRL continues to ignore. It seems I spent half of last year writing about the ridiculousness of having such a large chunk of the season so profoundly devalued by the effects of State Of Origin, so I won’t mention it here except to say that it is an enduring frustration as a fantasy player. The period has long been the scourge of the Broncos and now having the same effect down in Melbourne, witnessed by the latter’s mid-season slump in 2012. Cameron Smith is a player who has often suffered in fantasy terms during the Origin period, so I was interested to see the toll it took on the Queensland halves.

As it turns out, Cronk fared much better than Thurston in 2012, averaging 51 to JT’s 46. Cronk played one extra game in this time, but this year it’s all equal. Barring injury or club enforced resting, each player will play four times over the course of that eight week period, backing up from the Wednesday night Origin match on two occasions.



So is Cronk as good as Thurston? I maintain he is not, although I would without any question have him in my team, reality or fantasy. Although that would be a swap for, respectively, Nathan Fien and Scott Prince, so it’s not really saying that much. As a fantasy owner however, the numbers suggest that while Thurston has more upside, Cronk at the moment is a safer bet. 


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