Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that Melbourne Storm hooker Cameron Smith played his record-setting 400th NRL game on Saturday night.
The first player to pass the magical 400-game mark, it’s a truly staggering achievement, yet what should have been a celebration of an incredible milestone turned slightly sour when a number of fans used the occasion to question Smith’s integrity and his legacy in the game.
I should stress that this conversation took place primarily on Twitter, not exactly a place known for objective, rational, balanced or nuanced dialogue.
Twitter has been described as “a cesspool”, “an utter wasteland” and “a dumpster fire fuelled by steaming hot takes”. So it’s not exactly the greatest source of intelligent discourse, and frighteningly, those descriptions of the platform actually come from someone who loves it: me.
I’d also like to point out that a personal pet hate is articles written purely on the basis of some Tweets. I can’t stand said pieces, and find them lazy and not a true representation of what the public’s feelings may be on a certain topic.
Having said all that, enough people whose opinion I (vaguely!) respect weighed in to say they really struggle to warm to Cameron Smith, or acknowledge his greatness. This gave me reason to pause and assess my own feelings on the ex-Australian and Queensland skipper.
As a Bulldogs and NSW fan, I’m not conditioned to have a lot of love for Melbourne or Queensland, so I’d like to think there’s no bias in the following opinion: I think Cameron Smith is an outstanding player, and possibly the second greatest I’ve ever seen play, behind Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns.
Given that assessment, you can probably understand why I found it bemusing that so many were not keen to give Smith any kudos.
Though this obviously doesn’t cover every Smith detractor’s feelings, the general gist of the vitriol was based on one, or all, of the following beliefs: he’s a salary cap cheat, he engages in repeated foul play and dangerous tactics, he influences the refs, he played a role in the Alex McKinnon tragedy, and he didn’t do as much for the game as Benji Marshall, who notched his own milestone of 300 games on the weekend.
I’m sure other Roarers will add to this list in the comments, but that’s a tight summary of the reasons a lot of fans weren’t exactly being effusive with praise for Smith.
So do these complaints have any actual merit? Let’s unpack them one by one.
Salary cap cheat
It’s true, Smith was part of the Storm club that was found cheating the salary cap. However there is no conclusive evidence that Smith knew anything about it.
Yes, the old ‘two signatures, two contracts’ narrative always gets brought up, but if that’s the extent of proof that Smith knew about the rorting, it’s a pretty flimsy case.
There’s also the slightly salient point that almost every single NRL club has breached the cap at some point.
Granted, they may not have been as systematic or as large as Melbourne’s, but a number of premiership teams have been tainted by cap controversies, and the Bulldogs, Sharks, Eels, Sea Eagles and Warriors – amongst others – have all copped large fines and been stripped of premiership points in recent times.
So if you hold the Storm’s salary cap cheating against Smith, I hope you’re consistent with others as well.
Foul play and dangerous tactics
This has a little bit of substance. The Storm were one of the first teams – if not the first – to employ a wrestling coach. The intent was to teach players a myriad of tactics that could slow down the play the ball for a few crucial seconds.
Melbourne became masters at it, and Smith was no exception.
Though the strategy behind the move was borderline genius, for many people it crossed the line. Some of the moves were deemed illegal and dangerous, and by the time the media got a hold of it, the fact that many teams employed such coaches and tactics was lost, and it became solely a Storm behaviour.
Fact is, some baggage remains here and Smith still gets labelled grubby. It’s not totally unfounded, but confirmation bias has taken over, and every indiscretion is just further proof that Smith always engages in foul play.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, huh?
Influencing the refs
This is actually funny. Or ludicrous. All captains get in the ear of the referees.
If you truly believe that Smith impacts the referees’ decisions, your ire should be directed at them, not him.
Alex McKinnon tragedy
I shouldn’t even give this one any more oxygen.
The hatchet job on Cameron Smith – especially some selective editing of the original tragedy – by 60 Minutes was one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve ever encountered. The fact Channel 9, and Alex himself, both apologised to Smith was telling.
However, Smith saying the 60 Minutes interview motivated the Queensland Maroons was in bad taste. I knew what he meant, but it didn’t come across too well.
He’s no Benji
Completely accurate and fair. Very few kids dream of becoming the next Cameron Smith. They want to throw flick passes, do chip and chases, master banana kicks, or bamboozle defenders with a massive step.
Smith’s high IQ game, sound fundamentals, and rarity of mistakes ensure he’ll never generate entertaining highlight reels.
Yet in a game decided by missed tackles, kicking out on the full, taking the wrong option on the fifth, or failing to pot conversions, Smith’s elite execution is worth its weight in gold, and ensures he’s almost always on the winning side.
So yes, he probably hasn’t brought as many people into the game as Benji, but few have. Plus I’m not sure it’s a reason to hate him.
So why all the hate?
It doesn’t really seem like the above provides enough valid reasons to dislike Smith so immensely.
Personally, I feel Smith is the victim of a negative media campaign, spearheaded by a collection of NSW-based journalists who love a sensationalist headline, and know that hate sells.
Every good story needs a villain, and this particular posse is only too happy to continually paint Smith as the bad guy to an audience that’s extremely open to it.
A Melbourne and Queensland captain is always going to be a target for NSW fans, so perpetuating the hatred for him is low-hanging fruit – something this mob of rugby league media personalities serve up daily.
Throw in the fact that Smith wins – and wins a lot – and it’s actually not that hard to understand where all the bitterness comes from.
In fact, I now understand why some Queenslanders like to hold on to the hysterical ‘Joey Johns was a drug cheat’ angle.
Fans will latch on to anything if it helps them not appreciate true greatness from the despised opposition.