Love him or hate him, there is no denying just how good Cameron Smith is.
One of rugby league’s most polarising figures, he has inspired the media to write just about every hot take there is to write about him over one of the longest, healthiest careers in the history of the sport.
Whether he retires or not following tomorrow night’s game is still up for debate, but certainly isn’t the focus of this column. He has earnt the right to retire on his terms, potentially more than anyone else in the game.
His longevity, creativity, ability to buck in and do the hard yards with his teammates, leadership and way of simply doing whatever it takes to win has ensured he goes down as one of the game’s greats.
But there will always be the carrot dangling over his head. The salary cap scandal, the fact he won all his premierships with blokes like Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk alongside him, as well as the fact his Queensland State of Origin wins were in what could well be the best team ever assembled on a footy field.
Now, I’m not taking anything away from Smith here, but it’s simply what will be raised by the rest of the media, the rest of the punters on social media and the average Joe down at your local pub tonight.
But, if he wins, he does it without those stars. Yes, he has Cameron Munster, a solid forward pack around him and a few other stars, but it’s not the Melbourne team of years gone by. They didn’t come into the season as outright favourites, and for some time now, everyone has been in a holding pattern, waiting for the Craig Bellamy-coached team to fall away.
But they don’t, and now, come grand final day, despite coming up against a red-hot Panthers side who haven’t fallen to a loss in 17 stars, they are the favourites.
The main reason is the experience, cool head and leadership their captain brings.
The only real achievement Smith hasn’t racked up in this sport is a Clive Churchill medal, but you can bet your house that if the men in purple win, Smith will have that on his resume by the end of the night.
And not only the accolades that would come with the grand final, but this is a Storm team who, to even make the grand final after spending a majority of the season based a million miles from home on the Sunshine Coast, have just put in an unbelievable effort.
Now, after some big finals wins over the Raiders and Eels, all that stands in their way are those Penrith Panthers, who are writing a success tale of their own.
It’s been a long, long time since the mountain men made it this far. We all know the story of 2003. There have been some close calls since, a couple of preliminary finals, a promised five-year plan.
In short, they have been nearly good enough, but not quite there.
And that was going to be the way this year again for the men from Penrith. They were going to make the top eight, or be very close to doing so, but when the whips were cracking the big boys were supposed to run away.
That hasn’t been the case though, with a Cleary revolution leading the way. Nathan and Ivan might take all the credit for the run of the team, but Apisai Koroisau and Jarome Luai have been superb, Dylan Edwards goes from strength to strength and the forwards…well, what could you say about them that hasn’t already been said?
They have been simply outstanding.
The only real reason they don’t come into the deciding match as the favourites is a distinct lack of grand final experience, but then, even that isn’t entirely true. Most of this side have played in junior grand finals, and many of them in the same side.
That may not have the intensity of an NRL grand final, but they were played on the same day, at the same venue and the Panthers are primed and ready to take the fight to the Storm this evening.
Their problem, as ever, will be overcoming Smith, who has more big-game experience than you can poke a stick at.
Whether it’s finals, grand finals, minor premiership deciding games, State of Origin matches, Test matches, World Cup games, World Club Challenges or anything in between, he has done it all. If there is something to do or win, he has just about done it all, and the way he has dragged his Melbourne team over every hurdle they have encountered this season suggests he’ll stop at nothing to complete the grand final before going away to make the highly-anticipated decision on his future.
With Sydney’s weather turning ugly, one might think the rain will only suit the Storm more, with Smith’s tenacious defence and attacking smarts able to likely adapt their game plan better than the free-flowing Panthers.
If the outsiders – and doesn’t it feel weird to say given the run of form – can’t get the kicking game spot on and just reign things in a fraction on the edges, they may well struggle to contend with the Storm in these conditions.
It’s a minor miracle we have got to the grand final given the global situation, but we are here, and it’s the best two teams squaring off.
By the end of the night, we will know if one player cements his legacy, or if it’ll be the biggest party at the foot of the mountains in almost 20 years.