I was a wide-eyed eight-year-old when I saw my first game of NRL on TV. The Storm were playing the 2007 grand final against the Sea Eagles and I was drawn to the purple colour-scheme as Melbourne ran riot.
Despite later being found to be over the salary cap, it’s still one of my favourite Storm line-ups.
Billy Slater in his kamikaze, million-miles-an-hour days, Matt King and Israel Folau at their peak in the centres, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk as halves, as well as the reliability of Mick Crocker, Dallas Johnson and Ryan Hoffman.
However, I was captivated for only one reason: the footballing magic that was Inglis.
Watching him steamroll over hapless defenders for his first try and run 60 metres to throw Michael Robertson into the car park with a fend was magical – I still love watching the young GI take flight and leave an imprint on the unfortunate Manly winger’s chest that must still be there.
Why is this important? Because for all the Inglis magic and Crocker shoulders in the highlights and headlines, the architect, a then-24-year-old Cameron Wayne Smith at hooker, was scheming behind it all.
He might not have the individual highlight reel of an Inglis or Slater but, as many before me have already said, the 428 games, 2708 points, two Dally M Medals and actual bank vault of NRL records speak for themselves.
I’m sure you’ve heard the Smith praise a million times before, but that’s just an indication of his stranglehold on this great game of ours. Like Nick Cotric struggling towards a try, fans of the NRL are inching ever closer to the juicy prize – Cam’s retirement.
But in true Smith style, he locks his powerful arms around us and wraps us up before forcing us to lose the ball, denying us our prize.
The GOAT went through a period in 2017 when he broke records almost weekly. This isn’t a bloke playing each game as a second thought either, this is a guy controlling each game he plays – whether through admirable means or not – to a career winning percentage of 71.36.
Hang on a minute Chris, did you call Cameron Smith the GOAT? Big title. Very big title.
I try not to compare NRL with basketball or NFL due to differences in team sizes and play styles, but Cam has the point-scoring abilities of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the success of Tom Brady (as well as unsavoury tactics), combined with the in-game team control of Lionel Messi.
He’s been top of the league for 18 years, consistently scoring points and steering his team to title wins.
You can argue Cronk was a major factor but the Storm lost him and went to another grand final the following season.
You could also argue Craig Bellamy is the major factor and these two have rarely played without the other in their camp, except for when Bellamy coached a fairly diabolical NSW Origin team against a side loaded with more Immortals than Mount Olympus (and a certain grand final that will not be talked about).
The 2020 decider will very, very likely be the last time Cameron Smith runs out onto a rugby league field and there is an appropriate level of excitement for the game. The Panthers have been the most consistent side all year, with only one loss, and the Storm seem to have timed their run perfectly. It will be one for the ages.
And with the clues given to us over the last few weeks surrounding Smith’s playing future, it’ll take on new meaning. The Purple Pride will be aiming to give their biggest legend a proper send-off, while Nathan Cleary and his Chocolate Soldiers will be trying to leap from the undergrowth and ambush their prey like a… There must be a good analogy. Oh well.
Of course there are reasons to not want Smith to win. The biggest guns do the most damage and are therefore targeted by opposition fire. His unsavoury past of winning titles with a team over the league-enforced salary cap will, quite rightly, never really leave him. (I urge you to read the book Storm Cloud, by Paul Kennedy, which outlines the whole debacle and is a great education on NRL behind-the-scenes efforts. Spoiler: the players had no idea it was happening because it was neither their responsibility to enquire about team finances nor their interest to.)
You could also take issue with his enforced wrestling and slowing down of the game, which even I as a fan am not big on. That’s fair. You don’t have to like him. You’re not forced to like him. It is, admittedly, pretty easy not to like him.
But I’m not asking you to go out and buy his jersey or clean his car. Not even to like him at all. Just respect the guy.
Respect a guy who has not only done every single bloody thing in this game, but led dozens of others. Captained his club, state and country to consistent success. Almost dominance.
Don’t, if Melbourne lose, sneer and taunt. Don’t, if Melbourne win, just pull out ol’ reliable and just blame the referees and wrap every purple person in existence up in a conspiracy blanket (unless Josh Addo-Carr throws the ball, NFL quarterback style, to himself 95 metres downfield with the scores locked in the 79th minute and the referees award the try).
When the whistle goes for the end of the game, at least show some respect for the guy who owned the game for nearly his whole career.
The footage of Billy Slater being interviewed after the 2018 grand final before his retirement makes my blood boil to this day. Here he is, a guy whose team has been fairly beaten in his last ever game, in a grand final, and the gooses watching him tearfully embrace his children while complimenting his opposition and humbly admit defeat boo him. Almost drowning out his words. Disgraceful.
If Smith receives the same treatment, then there is something seriously wrong with people. Having class in defeat is something I admire, but I love humble winners even more. Not rubbing it in, not jeering and saluting with a solitary finger. Sure, it may feel good to gloat after a hard-fought victory, but if two meathead forwards who have been trying to rip each others’ heads off can shake hands afterwards, why can’t fans?
Maybe Cam will take an offload on his own 40 and sprint 60 metres like Greg Inglis in his prime, fending off Dylan Edwards and scoring an all-time classic that will be shown live on television to another kid watching his first-ever NRL game. Or maybe those dastardly Panthers will ruin his fairytale ending.
I hope, whatever the outcome, that the NRL’s most controversial figure can go his own way and we remember the GOAT who, while controversial and not widely loved, did everything and dominated everything he did.
(And hopefully deprive Fox League of hundreds of hilariously anti-Smith articles over the new few weeks.)