Ryan Hoffman - NRL - AthletesVoice
Ryan Hoffman - NRL - AthletesVoice


The real story of the big 3

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The real story of the big 3


The few, crazy moments after NSW clinched the State of Origin series in 2014 perfectly sums up Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk for me.


It was a huge moment in my career and my life. NSW had lost eight series in a row. It was the longest drought in Origin history. We’d finally broken it.


The first people to congratulate me were three of my opponents.


Cameron, Bill and Coops were hurting. But they ignored that for the moment. Each one of them came up to me, gave me a hug and said, ‘Mate, I’m just so happy for you.’


That was big for them, my Melbourne Storm teammates, because they’re the ultimate competitors. I know how disappointed they would have been to lose that series – even after winning so many before that.


So much has been said about their winning records for club, state and country. But the way they responded in that moment, in defeat, showed their true colours as people.




We’ve been through a lot together on and off the field. We even lived it together for a while.


I didn’t know a soul when I first moved to Melbourne, so I moved in with Cameron and his girlfriend and now wife, Barb. Then Bill moved in. It was the four of us in a three-bedroom townhouse right in the middle of Richmond.


That was good fun. Well, it was good fun for me and Smithy, watching Bill and Barb butt heads! Barb is a sensational lady. She used to very kindly cook for us and look after us. But, being the only woman in the house alongside three men, we used to get on her nerves a bit.


We were all great friends, but Bill’s quite a strong-willed individual and didn’t like being told what to do by Barb. So that’s how it would start. Cameron and I would just watch and enjoy the show! We were all just 18 or 19 at the time.


Eventually, Smithy and Barb moved out to get their own place and Cooper moved in. It was Bill, Cooper and me.


A lot of the pubs around Richmond had meal deals on different nights. Monday night would be a porterhouse steak and a pot of beer for $10, or Tuesday a schnitzel and a pot. That was basically how the three of us fed ourselves for a while, going to the local pubs and finding out what was on special. It saved us having to cook and do the washing up.


We were all great friends, but Bill’s quite a strong-willed individual and didn’t like being told what to do by Barb. So that’s how it would start. Cameron and I would just watch and enjoy the show!


When we did start doing a bit of cooking ourselves the deal was if you cooked you didn’t have to wash up. And when we did the grocery shopping together, we each had to guess the bill. Whoever was furthest from the total had to pay it.


Cooper liked things nice and tidy and he brought some cool stuff to put around the house. It looked like a proper home.


The Storm held the lease to the house since the club’s inception, so a heap of players had lived in it. It was only a five-minute drive to training. The problem was that when Cooper, Bill and I were living there the lease expired and the Storm decided not to renew it.


We had to clean it up before we moved out. You can imagine the stuff that had piled up from eight or nine footy players living there over time. All the old footy gear was jammed under the stairs. The backyard was an absolute disaster. But it was a great place to live and I’ve got a lot of fantastic memories from that time.


Ryan Hoffman with Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater



Bill, Cameron and Cooper had all known each other since they were 16 or 17 and I was the new guy, but I quickly became good friends with all of them.


Cooper and I were a bit different to Cameron and Bill. They achieved regular first grade spots early in the piece, but it was more of a challenge for Cooper and I to develop the consistency needed to be picked all the time.


The four of us shared some great moments and some big disappointments out on the field. Winning Grand Finals, losing them and everything else in-between.


Probably the hardest period was when the NRL stripped the club of two premierships over the salary cap drama. As players, we thought it was the greatest injustice that had ever happened and that we were the most hard done-by people in the world.


Obviously, other people are going to have different opinions on that. But that’s how we felt.


We were all hit hard. Billy, Cameron and myself were all married by that time and could go home to our wives, so we really felt for Cooper because he was living on his own at the time. That was tough for him.


We all felt better when we were together around the club and could at least provide each other with a bit of a distraction. We all came out of that period as better and stronger people and I think Cooper took that time alone to reassess his priorities and determine what he really wanted out of the game.


Individually, you couldn’t get three more different people than Cameron, Cooper and Bill. But, like they say, opposites attract.




Cooper is very focused in his preparation. He works hard and has got his own set routines.


He got a bit obsessed with his diet a few years back and eventually realised he needed to pull back a bit. Diet is obviously important and he was making things work for him, but at the same time I think he eventually realised it was causing him to miss out on things socially.


He wouldn’t want to go out to dinner because he wanted to stick to his diet, but he has found a happy medium now. He just wanted to be the very best footballer he could be.


Bill’s a funny one – very family oriented but also very driven to make sure he achieves everything he can. Nothing gets in the way of that. He has managed to achieve a great balance between those two elements of his life.


Cameron is a three-year-old in a grown-up’s body. He’s a fun-loving type of guy who acts like his children do and loves life for what it is.


Individually, you couldn’t get three more different people than Cameron, Cooper and Bill. But, like they say, opposites attract.


He took the mickey out of Craig Bellamy from the start. If the coach mucked up an opposition player’s name in a meeting, Smithy would pounce.


Bellyache would have a shocking time when we were playing the Warriors. There were a few names there he couldn’t get right. Another player, Anthony Laffranchi, he used to call Lanfranchi. Dale Finucane was Finalcon one day.


Cameron would sit down the front and when Bellyache got a name wrong Smithy’s head would shoot up. He’d turn around with a look on his face to see if all the other boys had picked up on it.


The coach would tell him in no uncertain terms to pull his head in, but it didn’t stop him. Next time it happened, Smithy would pipe up and say: ‘What was that name again?’


The big thing Cameron, Bill and Cooper have in common is that they want to be the best at whatever they do and each of them knows the other two are the best people to help them achieve that.


That’s why they complement each other so well.


Glory days: Hoffman with Cronk



We’ve been there for each other in every major moment of our lives.


I was at the hospital when Cameron and Bill’s kids were born and they came to the hospital when my kids arrived. We’ve been to each other’s weddings. Cameron and Bill were groomsmen at mine and I’m looking forward to Cooper’s wedding at the end of the year.


I’ve been away from the Storm for three years playing for the Warriors, but that doesn’t change anything. My friendship with these guys is as strong as ever. I caught up with Cooper for breakfast on Tuesday and I’ve talked to Cameron and Bill on the phone.


Cameron is a three-year-old in a grown-up’s body. He’s a fun-loving type of guy who acts like his children do and loves life for what it is.


When you’re all of a similar vintage – Billy and Cameron were born on the same day, for crying out loud! – and you come into grade around the same time, you develop an affinity for each other because you’re facing the same challenges every day.


Cooper is going to leave a big hole when he leaves after the Grand Final, not only because of what he does on the field but what he means to everyone as a friend.


It will be hard, but the club leaves no stone unturned when it comes to planning. What makes the Storm great is that no one is bigger than the team. Brodie Croft, for instance, is being well groomed for the future.


I don’t know if Billy is going to play on next year or not. I guess he could retire if the Storm win, but I also know how hard he’s worked to get himself back on the paddock.


It’s going to come down to his desire and whether he wants to keep doing the work and the rehab. Only Bill knows that.


Cameron is the greatest player to ever pull on a boot. Bill and Cooper are among the greatest players ever in their positions. But you still need someone to tie it all together and I reckon we must all have been born under a lucky star to have Craig coach us at the Storm.




I would have still backed myself to play first grade if I wasn’t coached by Craig, but he helped me become the first-grader I wanted to be. If you asked the other three guys they would say the same thing.


Craig made us all realise that just doing enough isn’t good enough. He was determined to get the most out of every individual player. He hates to see a player not reach his potential.


Cameron, Billy and Cooper have become legends under Craig’s guidance. Then you look at other players, like Bryan Norrie or Jaiman Lowe, who didn’t have the skillset of those guys but still reached the heights of winning a Grand Final.


The reason that happened was because Craig coached them to get everything they possibly could out of themselves. They reached their potential. We all did.


Craig works out a player’s potential very quickly. He knows whether they’re a future Immortal or a part of a Grand Final-winning pack and he balances responsibilities accordingly.


In my case, he made me a much more mature player. Playing first grade is about maturity and how you handle situations and I didn’t handle it well enough at the start. But I learned to under Craig.


He has known me since I was born. He and my Dad were playing together for Canberra in the 1980s. If I’ve got a problem or I need advice, I can discuss it with Craig, the same as I can with Cameron, Bill and Cooper. They’re great teammates, but even better friends.


When I left to join the Warriors at the end of the 2014 season, they said they didn’t want to see me go. But they knew I had to look after my family and respected my decision.


Just before my wife, Mel, and I left for New Zealand, Cameron and Barb invited us out to dinner. He said, ‘You guys come around and pick us up and we’ll take you to this new place.’


We went around and knocked on the door. A voice inside said, ‘Come in, we’re almost ready.’


We walked in and they had organised a huge farewell at their home for us.


The whole team was there – players, coaches and officials – and that showed us how much not only Barb and Cameron appreciated us, but the whole club did. It was fantastic.


Hoffman in his NZ Warriors days




I won’t be at the Grand Final. I’m playing on next year and I’ll know where soon. When you’re not retired, it’s hard to go to a game like that and be reminded what you’re missing out on.


That’s especially the case when you’ve played in four Grand Finals, like I have, and you realise just how special a day it is. It hits you hard.


But I’ll be watching from the family home we kept in Melbourne and I’ll be cheering for the Storm.


I’d dearly love to see my great mates win another title.


For Cooper, and possibly Billy, it would be a fitting way to go out.





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