Cameron Smith: Rugby league genius, top bloke

Matt Cleary Columnist

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    Even haters don’t hate Cameron Smith. All those keyboard kooks in Twitter Land who get a horn from hating something, anything, and throwing their self-loathing gibber around the e-waves, even those clowns don’t hate Cameron Smith.

    Smith is universally-regarded: Top Bloke.

    Maybe not universally. There’s people would be boo Santa delivering life-saving medicine.

    But, in the main, even to those who aren’t Queenslanders or Storm boys, people nod and look at Cam Smith and think, Cam Smith? Respect.

    Old blokes like him because he looks like they looked in the ‘50s and ‘60s: tight, sensible. Neither arm full of tattoos. No expensive haircut. He looks like a man should: Military, old school. A man.

    Girls like him, too, though they don’t fling themselves like hot muffins as they do spunkier boys.

    Smith appeals to women more than girls. His is a man’s face, a handsome enough mug; shades of Colin Farrell; dark, low eye-brows; prickly three-day growth.

    To young men he’s the wise and wry wise-cracker, the older bro who’d lend you fifty. Dudes aren’t jealous of him. Unlike some from the fractious, gilded man-youth of his e-generation,

    Smith doesn’t drink alco-pops, wear flash threads nor squire gimlet-eyed hotties.

    He’s a beer man. Schooners of Carlton. Drives a Kingswood. Got a Harley. Top Bloke.

    Referees like Smith because he doesn’t front them, get “big” in their faces. Where others (fools) rush in, waving arms, all sweat and spit and indignation, swearing, Waddyafugginmean!? – yes, you James Graham – Smith just asks a question: Talk us through that one, sir. He barely even tilts an eye-brow.

    And the refs, respected, think, Top Bloke, and find him hard to penalise.

    People like him because he doesn’t look like a ‘roid-engorged monster-man. He looks like a knockabout from your social golf club, a tradesman who’ll do you a love-job for a carton. Top Bloke. All-Aussie.

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    Even when News Ltd’s papers published television screen shots of several ‘illegal’ tackles in a State of Origin and the minutes of the match in which they occurred, there wasn’t an uproar, especially.

    The usual keyboard warriors went at it. A couple of radio jocks opined. But the general sentiment was, well, it’s State of Origin. There is room for the grubby.

    And anyway, it’s Cam Smith. And he’s a Top Bloke. And a great bloody player.

    Great? One of the greatest ever, pal.

    The marvel of Smith is not his: super-smart work from dummy-half; slick ball-work at the ruck; darting snipes; subtle dummies; soft hands; innate combination with Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater; veritable genius of a left foot; frozen-rope goals; flawless defence; fitness; precision; guile; bravery; strength; leadership; nor winning ways of rugby league.

    At least not entirely.

    For while those are all fine traits and the mark of a Great Player And Future Immortal, Smith’s greatest trick is that he does all this stuff as if he’s driving down the shops for milk and bread, laidback like a pot-head in a hammock.

    Smith will make 50 tackles and won’t have messy hair.

    Smith’s defence is technically excellent because it’s always had to be. Since he was a little tacker he’s been the same size relative to others. That being an aptly-named ‘the accountant’ compared to the other mob’s blood-gargling Vikings.

    But Smith is sinewy strong. Like a tradesman who’s been on the tools a decade, he has muscles where they matter. He is hard rather than showy. He’s a nerd not a Julio.

    I once shared a Chinese meal with two Raiders giants, Tom Leahroyd-Lars and Dane Tilse. And both admitted to being “frightened” of running at Smith lest he make them look stupid.

    “It doesn’t mean you don’t try,” smiled Leahroyd-Lars. “You still try to run over him. But he’s very hard to shove off.”

    Like Allan Langer did, Smith can get up and inside the ribs of the giants, inveigle himself, and use the bigger man’s weight to hurl him down face first.

    Few years ago I was ringside at an Anzac Test in Canberra, the yearly exhibition of Kangaroo dominance over Kiwi.

    Smith had his usual game-face on: The Mask. And he was just there, playing, scheming, doing little things perfectly.

    A grubber, a show-and-go dummy – it was subtle, super-effective stuff. The “surgeon” thing rings true. He carved the Kiwis and they scarcely even knew it.

    He was giving up 20-30 kilos of mobile muscle to the game’s biggest Vikings – in that case ridiculous man-beasts Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Jesse Bromwich – and bringing them down, and holding them there, humping dirt.

    For another of Smith’s greatest tricks is his work on the deck, slowing play-the-ball. A little ankle-tug here, a head move there, a chin-cup. These plays don’t hurt his opponent but they do subtly, briefly immobilise them.

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    And in a game in which ruck speed is crucial, Smith’s body-work wins games. As Learoyd-Lahrs said over Mongolian lamb: “When he’s got you on the ground he’s always gaining that extra second.”

    My mate Matt Hill, an Australian rep judo man, reckon it’s due to hours of practice at judo and Brazilian Jujitsu.

    “To manipulate players, to turn them onto their backs and control them, you have to maintain control of the head,” says Hill. “And Smith knows this.”

    Hill’s been thirty years in judo and says he can recognise league players who’ve been drilled in the dark arts.

    Hill reckons were Smith to retire tomorrow he could enter and immediately compete in blue belt Brazilian Jujitsu competition.

    A lot of players have Smith’s skills. But only the gilded few have all of them all of the time. Smith’s greatness – and you’d wager one day his Immortality – is that he pulls them off near-perfectly every game.

    Doesn’t matter if it’s Round 4 in Campbelltown or Origin Decider. Smith just… plays. Right option, right time.

    And he’s done it for a decade. He’s the fulcrum in the game’s three best teams – Storm, Queensland, Australia.

    He’s the fulcrum of perhaps the game’s greatest three-prong death squad – The Big Three.

    Cronk might be credited with more ‘Try Assists’ and Men-of-Matches.

    Slater has scored more long-range tries to the delighted squeals of girls. (My wife calls Slater ‘My Billy’.)

    But Cronk and Slater do their thing on the back Smith’s perfect, soft passes – butterflies wafting into waiting hands. Cronk and Slater don’t have to think.

    And when they do think, they think, Cam Smith. Heck of a player. Top bloke.

    Matt Cleary
    Matt Cleary

    Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website.

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