Cameron Smith’s milestone is befitting of the player he is – the consistency and level at which he’s been able to ascertain throughout his career is nothing short of incredible.
His resume reaffirms that – four premierships, two World Cup wins and 11 State of Origin series wins – including five as captain. He’s been to the finals in all but two of his NRL seasons – the first in 2002 when he only played two games, and the second in the infamous 2010 season where the Storm were forced to play for no points.
Personally, he’s achieved as much as anyone – two time Dally M Medal winner, two time Golden Boot winner, seven time Dally M Hooker of the Year and four Wally Lewis Medal wins as the best player in a State Of Origin series.
All of this is a feat only The King himself Wally Lewis betters.
His personal achievements – albeit an unbelievable feat – only paint part of the picture. What impresses me more about Smith is his ability year on year, to stay at the top of his game and even climb to new heights in performance.
At 37 years of age, Smith is an elder statesman of the NRL – he should be winding down his career, if not already be retired. Yet each year we sit in awe at the fact that he continues to be the best and most influential player in the competition.
Other players noticeably slow down near the end of their careers. Even the stars of the game such as Johnathon Thurston and Greg Inglis struggled in their final seasons.
This is no slight on these two – they had injury problems and were getting older and their bodies were slowing down, which is usually the case. But I find it incredible the way Smith is still playing his best footy, even after 400 games.
The big three of Smith, Cronk and Slater is no longer, and it was long questioned whether Smith – or the other two – would be able to have the same impact without their partners in crime.
Last year they lost Cronk – their talismanic halfback – and still managed to make the grand final. In 2019 – with Slater retired – the Storm have continued their era of dominance, sitting on top of the ladder with three wins from their closest rivals.
This is in no small part because of the influence of Smith and the way he picks sides apart, leading his team to victory.
Against the Warriors this year, an out of sorts Melbourne side were nearly out of the game. In stepped Smith, who orchestrated the victory from number 9 and made sure the Storm came away with the two points. It was a game the Storm didn’t deserve to win, but the class and guile of Smith dragged them to victory.
In terms of the greats, we sometimes assess them in the way they’ve changed the game or their position. Slater is arguably the greatest fullback the game has ever seen, and the reason why is how he transformed the way number 1’s play.
Also think of Joey Johns and the way he could exploit a sides weakness that was never seen before. He could punish sides and would be aggressive in going at them, and he’s now regarded as the greatest number 7 of all time.
If that’s one of the measures for who’s the greatest, then Smith’s development of the hooker position is unrivalled.
The way Smith has evolved into the most influential player in the game is remarkable, especially from a position that many people thought was all about being a strong defender and providing good service.
His subtleties around the play of the ball are so discrete yet effective. He feigns to play one side – holding the ball out in two hands – and then cuts back on the opposite side of the ruck where he’s escaped the attention of the markers.
It’s such a brilliant play that allows his forwards to get over the advantage line and target defenders behind the ruck. It also takes so much pressure off of his playmakers as it buys them time – since the defence is so wary – they don’t shoot out to jam the halfbacks, as they know Smith is too smart and will hurt them.
I hear Matty Johns – one of the best footballing brains around – talk a lot about playing across the field with the football instead of playing shape to one side and then taking a settler back in, as it doesn’t allow the defence to reset and get all their numbers and spacing right.
This is something Smith has revolutionised with the game. He will jump into first receiver when a play has gone wide, and will then play onto his other half at the other side of the pitch. It’s something most hookers do now as it means their halfback doesn’t have to shoot back around to be there, and it’s a play Smith has instigated.
Probably the most impressive thing about Smith and his career to me, is that he’s managed to do all of this from the toughest position in the game. He regularly makes over 50 tackles a match – in the 2016 NRL grand final he made 67. He then has to get to pretty much every play of the ball, and has the added responsibility to run when he sees the opportunity – doing this is for 80 minutes a game.
The longevity he’s been able to maintain is testament to the work ethic and accountability he has had for his body and recovery.
400 games is an amazing achievement, but the level and quality he’s played at in each of those 400 – and the other 102 representative games – is something we haven’t seen before in the game.
Whatever your opinions are on Smith, what’s undeniable is his stature that he holds in the game – and rightfully so.