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Some years ago, the people of New Zealand were upset that Quade Cooper’s knee collided with Richie McCaw’s head. And they booed and booed our Quade, and booed him again.
It was a Bledisloe Cup fixture prior to the World Cup of 2011. And it was all a bit of a thing.
McCaw, you see, for our same-same-but-different cuzzy-bros of New Zealand, is way above Jesus. McCaw is the Uber Kiwi. McCaw is Sir Edmund Hillary and Wal Footroot and that curly-haired dingbat sang “Slice of Heaven”, all wrapped in the holy No.7 jumper of the All Blacks.
Because look at him! Handsome, dimpled chin, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth it would turn into chocolate love-gunk.
Men want to be Richie McCaw. Women want to be Richie McCaw.
If a straight Kiwi man had to choose between making love with another man or death, he would choose to make love with Richie McCaw.
Richie McCaw can fly a helicopter. Richie McCaw is New Zealand’s freakin’ god. Richie McCaw is the nicest and best rugby player ever.
And his game, well … McCaw won and won and won. He won contests, he won ball; he won over referees and crowds and the respect of everyone who played against him – except, it seems, to Kiwis’ taste, Quade Cooper, who kneed Richie in the head accidentally-on-purpose.
Yet watch his footy, Richie, closely. He didn’t miss ‘em. There were subtle parts to his game that caused accidental-on-purpose physical and emotional pain to his opponents.
Little elbow here, little knee nudge there. A smirk, a sledge. Not enough to be penalised by refs (he was Richie McCaw after all, old chocolate love gob), but enough to rile the likes of our Quade, who bonked his knee into Richie’s melon, and thus incensed the country of New Zealand.
For how dare Quade Cooper – covered in tattoos, clearly a flashy Aussie mug lair, a grub – do such a nasty thing to Richie, the best and nicest rugby player ever, with the dimpled chin and chocolate love gob, and all that.
The very thought.
In the midst of the maelstrom of late 2011 – in which New Zealand’s flat-out desperation to not lose the Rugby World Cup manifested an attitude not befitting the world’s nicest people – former Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns went in to bat for Cooper, and by extension Australian rugby, when he declared that “You’re not out there to be nice to them.”
Kearns’ contention was that the game of rugby was about, in part, hurting your opponent. Beating them. And that Richie McCaw knew that as well as anyone. He’d hurt as many as had hurt him. And to grouse about it was, well, a tad hypocritical.
Which brings us, in a Canberra roundabout kind of way, to the announcement that champion Queensland and Australia No.9 Cameron Smith – who recently complained of being bopped, and quite roughly, in the testicles by Dragons back-rower ‘Honest’ Jeremy Latimore – has announced his retirement from representative rugby league.
(‘Honest’ Jeremy? I dunno – I just made it up. He seems honest, in an honest toiler kind of way. Played golf with him once, he is hopeless.)
Anyway! Yes. That’s the end of Cam Smith in rep footy.
No more will we see his ‘perfect’ dissections of Blues and black jumpers. No more of his cool incisions. No more Origin, no more Tests.
No more of his immortal brand of feisty, super-skilled and ‘perfect’ rugby league for Queensland and Australia, only now for Melbourne Storm, his heart.
And with Smith’s retirement from rep stuff comes reflection. And one reflection is this: like the great Richie, Cam Smith won over referees and won so many games they’ll build statues of him.
Storm and Maroons fans will continue to love him so much they’d fly in a helicopter piloted by him even though he doesn’t have to know how to fly one.
Smith is the McCaw of Australian rugby league, but without the absolute adoration of the entire nation. For such is the partisan nature of Australian rugby league, Smith is either a legend or a grub, or something in between, depending who you ask.
Don’t believe it? Friend, the magnificent Wally Lewis once ran out as captain of Australia wearing the green-and-gold jumper, and fans yelled “Wally’s a wanker”.
It happened. Fact.
And when Cam Smith captained Australia, there were still plenty who noted his excellent defensive hardness, and called him a grub.
Maybe not out loud. But they still thought it.
Fact. Cam Smith: grub.
Grub? It’s an odd word for rugby league, a game in which – as Phil Kearns said of old cousin Rah-Rah – you’re not out there to be nice to each other.
In league, often as not, grubs are good. Grubs are, like, valuable. Mick Ennis won the premiership in 2016, lauded as the game’s best grub.
Smith, however, is held to a higher standard.
Smith’s hatey-people will point to that leg-wrenching wishbone thing on Titans man Kevin Proctor as proof of his elite grubbiness. They’ll say he’s been doing it for years! He’s a grub!
And they’ll be a bit right and largely wrong, and theirs is but one opinion of 19,843 you’ll find on this forum alone. Such is the way of the fan, and of man – we are a vexed, silly species.
But here’s a thing: why is Smith a ‘grub’ and someone else – Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, say, or Sam Burgess or Frank-Paul Nu’uausala – a ‘hard man’ or ‘enforcer’?
Why are the biggest, baddest men on the field often the most popular?
Why is such an excellent, surgeon of a league man like Smith – dimple-chinned, handsome and hard, but with a body better suited to bad financial planning – not universally admired?
Because he’s a Queenslander. Because he’s a winner. Because he’s a grub.
Cameron Smith is all these things.
Cameron Smith is rugby league.