Brandon Smith is one of the game’s true characters. A court jester with a level of honesty and a self-effacing wit that is both hilarious and at times cringeworthy.
Smith grew up on a diet of rugby league – he would ‘eat bread and shit rugby league’ in the very un-rugby league community of Waiheke Island, a place that he proudly declares has ‘like 47 private vineyards’. His father was the barman at the local Waiheke Rams Rugby League Club. His mother worked the canteen.
Smith claims he wore his mouthguard and footy boots to school, such was his love of the game. In his own words, he’s a ‘weird dude’ who shies away from the usual aggressive pump-up music before games and prefers Adele and ‘piano music’. On a rugby league weirdness scale, this is likely a solid 8.5.
The one they call ‘Hectic Cheese’ or simply ‘The Cheese’ has had a busy month. His eastern seaboard tour searching for a new club that will allow him to suit up in his preferred position of hooker has been played out in a very public way.
First, he was spotted leaving the Redcliffe Dolphins Leagues Club, accosted by fervent journalists to which he rebutted rather brilliantly with the aside, “I was just playing the pokies.”
The same journalists then told us daily where The Cheese was next. It was like looking for Where’s Wally but he wasn’t hidden, he was just a big block of gouda outside another fancy boardroom. It was all mildly entertaining stuff until that podcast blew the whole damn thing up in a spectacularly honest and exciting way.
Predictably, the old clickbait muckrakers misquoted and re-contextualised Smith’s candid podcast interview to suit their agenda. They were all too quick to label his comments ‘disrespectful’.
It’s an ongoing saga and it’s playing out in real time. The latest developments include an apology from the man himself and a terse press release from the seemingly perpetually aggrieved Melbourne Storm. More on this later, but I should pause and give the rightful context to the podcast.
It was put together by YKTR, a sports lifestyle brand helmed by former rugby league players Isaac John, Corey Norman and James ‘Chicko’ Segeyaro. Their main remit is to sell clothing to their target market – male rugby league fans. They recently signed Brandon Smith in a sponsorship capacity and, naturally, this was the impetus for the interview.
Terry Lamb diehards may question the YKTR aesthetic. Others may simply dislike what YKTR represents, but it can not be denied that the very topical interview was refreshing in its candour and a bomb waiting to explode from a PR perspective.
The timing was both perfect and disastrous. You either live or die when you take a ride on the Titanic. Feel free to watch the recently uploaded video in all its foul-mouthed glory.
Despite what the boring and lazy scribes will have you believe, Smith wasn’t just frothing over Trent Robinson’s impressive red wine, he also talked, humbly and at length, across a range of topics as diverse as mental health, giving back to the game and investing in everything from cryptocurrency and NFTs to sports trading cards. It’s fascinating stuff from a young man trying to better himself, his family, his community and those around him.
Smith admits he’s not ‘the smartest’ and he pours hours into researching the various facets of his self-development including listening to legendary grinders like Kenny Bromwich (who you never read about in the press) who, it turns out, is somewhat of a student of divergent investment strategies.
Much has been made about the remarks around the Melbourne Storm’s ‘drinking culture’, often by the same people who say the only way you get your struggling NRL team off the bottom of the ladder is to have a bonding session that invariably involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol and a bit of harmless truth-seeking. I’ll skip this narrative and leave others to fly their hypocrisy flag proud and high.
Smith also talked about an absolute belief in the Melbourne Storm system. He spoke of deep respect for Craig Bellamy, lamenting that he believes Bellamy is often miscast as the tyrannical expletive-laden boss.
For all the regaling of Dale Finucane’s shoe spewing after a vodka rigged game of beer pong, it was Smith’s talk about the disconnect between the Melbourne Storm’s head office and the players that would have Storm bosses reeling: “It’s very footy department versus commercial department.”
Perhaps it’s these comments that should have the Storm looking inward about how they can better improve their processes. It’s not just money that motivates individuals and that includes highly paid sports stars.
“I’ve made up my mind,” was the lead quote pulled from the star witness and splashed across your social media feed. What was also said during the almost hour-long interview and tellingly at right at the very end was: “I’ve 50 per cent made up my mind… Bellamy may convince me.”
Granted, if you were a block of cheese putting some sly pennies into a poker machine, you would pick the machine with the rooster on it. During the almost 60-minute interview, Smith talked about each prospective club with genuine respect.
On the Dolphins, he talked about the challenge of becoming a leader at a start-up club and the lure of working under the master, Wayne Bennet. He talked about how wealthy the Redcliffe club are, he was suitably impressed that they owned ‘a Coles…and lots of restaurants’, and that their old boys knew how to fish.
When they proudly lamented ‘we’ve got good boats’, it was clear they had done their research. The Cheese indeed likes to fish. As a running theme, the Dolphins had put together an impressive presentation and so it was at the Titans where Smith was also impressed with their presentation and awesome handshakes.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they have no family – that is to say no players with any family, and it was the family atmosphere provided by Tino Fa’asuamaleaui that warmed Smith’s heart at his Gold Coast stopover. Smith’s supportive mother couldn’t wait to be an auntie to big Tino’s kids. If it were her decision, he’d without question be suiting up a Titan for 2023.
But for all the seaside charms of the northern locales, it seems flashy restaurants like Totti’s and their lobster dishes and wines that don’t hurt the throat, and the ocean spray from Coogee to Bondi that has stolen the signature of one Brandon Smith.
Upon arriving at the head coach’s house via an e-scooter, to games of golf, a well-timed phone call from Nick Politis and yet more slick presentations, it seems the Sydney club did some grade-A silverware-winning wooing.
Tellingly, there was no pokie gate at Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club as the Roosters ushered Smith through the back door. Nothing says rockstar treatment like entering a building by dodging a large metal cardboard recycling bin. Take note ye Dolphins, it seems if you would like some more signatures this is a tactic worth minting.
The Cheese was truly impressed by the ‘mind-blowing’ Roosters set up. But upon entering the gates of Robinsonville, things changed. Things got cultural. As Smith puts it, he was struck by Robinson’s knowledge of indigenous culture.
“Aboriginal culture, Maori culture, Samoan culture, Tongan culture, he can talk… he knows so much stuff… reads books on it,” said Smith.
From there, the aforementioned wine flowed, fluent French reverberated around the room, it’s all heady stuff and when Robinson challenged Smith to a pizza-making competition it was fait accompli for the other combatants.
The great bard of rugby league, the great learned one, the confusing press conference proselytising, book reading, bilingual, good wine drinking, competitive pizza chef-ing Trent Robinson was the man who had truly licked the stamp and delivered the very important mail.
And then it all blew up. Smith was accused of being a very bad boy. Treated like a minor who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Nothing of his sincerity. Headlines devoid of context that missed the entire point of the conversation.
He has since had to release a public apology and the Storm have hit back with one of those, “Do not align with Storm’s values and the way we operate as a club,” press releases that would be comical if it wasn’t so bat shit boring.
The game cries out for characters but cuts them down when they speak from the heart. Sport is a very serious business, but it’s time that the game talked more seriously about its own hypocrisy in exposing and dealing with the lives of its talented players.