«As I said to him when he called last night, other than Cameron, he has played more games than anyone in the history of our game,» Bellamy said.
«I don’t think they actually realise the relevance of that and what it means.
«I’m old. I’m [almost] 60 years old and my heroes they never played anywhere near the number of games these guys played, and these guys [the big three] have played such a high quality of footy for 15, 16, 17 years – that is amazing.
«Sometimes I don’t know whether those guys realise that – they will probably realise it when they are older.»
At 35, Cronk will leave with more than 350 games to his name, 323 of which came with the Storm, where he played in four winning grand finals.
Cronk is so loved at the Storm that his coach buried his disappointment at seeing Cronk play out his career with Sydney Roosters, even when Cronk helped inspire his side to a win in last year’s grand final over the Storm.
Cronk moved to Sydney to be with his wife, Tara, and they now have a baby son named Lennox.
«I will always be a little bit [disappointed he left],» Bellamy said.
«But I fully supported Cooper because of the reasons he decided to go. There is certainly no hard feelings at all.»
At his retirement press conference, Cronk referred to himself as possibly the best third-wheel in history after playing alongside Smith and Slater, but Bellamy was having none of that.
«He is selling himself short,» Bellamy said. «He was a big part of the three-wheel mobile or whatever you like to call it.»
Out of Melbourne’s big three, Cronk came from furthest back.
Slater had natural speed, agility and toughness, which made him suited to being a fullback, while Smith was such a leader and technician that hooker was his born role. But Cronk played both those roles and five-eighth before changing course.
He was the last to lock down a place in first grade and, more remarkably, he wasn’t a born-and-raised halfback, instead being coached and trained into No.7.
Bellamy made the point that part of Cronk’s career was probably unknown to many young players and forgotten by many of his contemporaries.
The great halfbacks in rugby league history have either been born into the role or risen through the ranks in that role, yet Cronk has ended up with the greats.
«When Matt Orford left we saw it as any opportunity to make Cooper a full-time player as he was talented and had a good head for the game,» Bellamy said.
«You look at all the great halfbacks, they have been halfbacks since they were seven years old, although I don’t know if they give them positions that early nowadays.
«They come through the grades as halfbacks. Cooper didn’t start until he was 22, so to turn out the player he has been, it is quite remarkable really.
«For him to do what he has done shows how professional he has been and how hard working. To get a kicking game, get a passing game, to have game-management in that position – he improved very quickly but he didn’t get lucky.
«He’s done one hell of a job to make himself the player he is and I don’t know any players who have done that.»
Of all the legacies Cronk has left on the Storm and the game, that one may hang around the longest in the halls of AAMI Park.
Cronk won’t let up on his drive for one last premiership, although you sense the veteran coach expects to be on the opposite side to Cronk whenever his last game arises. Just like last year it could well come in this year’s grand final.
«I hope for him to finish the way he should finish,» Bellamy said.
«Hopefully he only has a couple of games where he doesn’t go so well and that comes against us.»
Cronk joked on Monday that Bellamy had never bought him a beer, so he looked forward to having a drink with him once he was retired. Bellamy laughed as he clarified the situation.
«I reckon for 13 of those 15 years he hasn’t drunk,» Bellamy said. «He went all dry there for a little while. I think he has one now, but not too many.
«I didn’t go out with the young blokes when he first came here, but back then he used to get a few into him.
«I would say to Coops that I would have offered to buy him one through that dry period but unfortunately he wasn’t drinking.»
Roy Ward is a Sports writer for The Age.