Cooper Cronk
Caption

Incoming South Sydney coach Michael Maguire intends to make a $2 million play to lure Melbourne Storm halfback Cooper Cronk to the Rabbitohs for 2013.

The Queensland Origin utility is guaranteed to become one of the NRL’s top earners when his contract with the Storm expires at the end of next season.

The Sunday Telegraph can reveal Cronk has been identified as Maguire’s top long-term priority, with the pair sharing a close-knit bond from their time at the Storm.

The other ace in the Rabbitohs’ negotiations is new assistant coach Matthew Johns, who helped transform Cronk from an emerging NRL super-sub into one of the code’s best halfbacks.

Johns will take on a specialist role with the Souths halves next season to continue the strong Melbourne presenceĀ at Redfern.

Given Cronk’s standing in the NRL, at least three other clubs – the Penrith Panthers, St George Illawarra Dragons and Parramatta Eels – have hatched plans to target the Storm playmaker.

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After the Eels signed Rabbitohs halfback Chris Sandow on a $2 million deal for next season, the market value has been set for quality No. 7s.

Souths chief executive Shane Richardson attempted to shoot down the link to Cronk, but The Sunday Telegraph has been assured it is part of Maguire’s plan to snare the Queensland star.

“Every club in the comp would be interested in Cooper Cronk, it’s a ridiculous question,” Richardson said. “I don’t know how strong a chance we are and we certainly haven’t started negotiations or anything like that.

“It’s still 2011, not 2013.

“At this stage, we’re going with Adam Reynolds next year and we’ve got every confidence in him as our halfback.”

Since being appointed in May, former Storm assistant Maguire has quickly put a Melbourne stamp in the red and green burrow, recruiting Johns, centre Matt King and high-performance manager Troy Thompson.

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Rep stars Michael Crocker, Greg Inglis and King have all come through the Storm’s structure.

The Sunday Telegraph understands that Maguire was to create a more ruthless edge in the Redfern bunker. Signing Cronk for 2013 would provide the playmaker needed to take the Rabbitohs to the next level.

Storm chief executive Ron Gauci conceded Cronk would be a priority target for most clubs but maintained Melbourne wanted to keep him.

“It’s very early at this point, but he’s shown his commitment to the club and we’ve shown our commitment to him,” Gauci said.

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy is contracted to the Storm until the end of 2013 and could find himself competing with former assistant Maguire for Cronk’s prized signature.

The champion halfback also has a get-out clause in his contract should coach Bellamy part ways with the Storm.