Cameron Smith ensures Melbourne Storm machine keeps on rolling | Matt Cleary

Cameron Smith
Cameron Smith of the Storm is carried off the ground after he played his 350th match against the Manly Sea Eagles at AAMI Park. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

A friend of mine called Barry was a soldier on a base in Townsville in the early 1990s when he and a mate were wandering through a shopping mall and came upon Tom Berenger. Yes, Tom Berenger – the Hollywood actor you might remember from such films as Major League and Smokin Aces II: Assassins Ball – who was in Queensland to shoot Sniper, the Panamanian jungle war movie shot in the Innisfail hinterland.

Yet it was Berenger’s role as Sergeant Barnes in the epic, Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Platoon that most appealed to Barry and his friend. So they approached the man to discuss the film. “Barnes! Hey, Barnes!” yelled Barry by way of introduction. “Why’d you shoot Sergeant Elias?” Berenger smiled. Lowered his eyebrows. And went into character.

“Elias was full of shit,” said Berenger doing Barnes. “Elias was a crusader. Now, I got no fight with any man who does what he’s told, but when he don’t, the machine breaks down. And when the machine breaks down, we break down.” And Barry and his friend laughed their heads off, wished they’d had a camera to take a photo (phone-cameras much less selfies hadn’t been invented) and bid the great Tom Berenger goodbye.

And the segue into a piece clearly about Sunday’s Manly and Melbourne Storm game at AAMI Park? It is this: Melbourne Storm are a machine. And it remains to be seen who can break them down. Certainly Manly couldn’t, being summarily flogged 40-6. The match did three things: it put an extra exclamation mark on Storm’s premiership favouritism; rendered Manly friendless with punters; and celebrated the champion Cameron Smith’s 350th first grade match.

How do you break them down? Manly can give you no answer. Addin Fonua-Blake tried to bash Cooper Cronk into the same netherworld that Iosia Soliola sent Billy Slater the week before. See it again: boom, a forearm head jolter, right on the jaw and Cronk looked like he wanted to retire on the spot. A committee will review it and Fonua-Blake is looking at a stint on the pine.

For 350 matches players have tried the same thing on Smith, this spindly “dogs body,” this “accountant”. But you can’t hurt the man. He went into the match with a sternum injury and played his 350th fixture as well and professionally-cool as he’s played any of them. The man may play forever.

“Smith is the key to beating Melbourne Storm,” says one NRL player. “You need to nullify him by controlling [slowing down] the ruck. You also need to get the right splits [of personnel] in defence because if you don’t that’s where he’ll go. He’s a master of exploiting a line that’s short on blokes one side or another. You also have to target him with the ball. He has to make 50 tackles.”

Smith made 31 tackles against Manly – and shredded them. The Sea Eagles seemed to hang off and let Smith run across field to dish pill to his big men or short to Cronk or wide to running backs. If it was a tactic to tire him out it didn’t work.

By half-time they were less soaring, proud sea eagles as mangy, one-legged, squawking gulls of Manly Corso

Pre-match you thought that Manly’s speed men, Dylan Walker, Akuila Uate and Tom Trbojevic would relish the fast AAMI Park surface on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Indeed they trotted out a pretty tasty XVII which prior to the dust-up by Dragons two games ago sat cocksure and strutting third on the ladder. By half-time they were less soaring, proud sea eagles as mangy, one-legged, squawking gulls of Manly Corso. Such was the weight of possession and territory against them they could have conceded 30 as they did against Saints. They missed 25 tackles. Melbourne missed three. Storm led just 12-6. Nobody knows how.

About the only time Manly had the ball in the Storm red zone during the first half they scored, a tidy try to winger Matthew Wright from a floating cut pass by Trbojevic, Manly’s best. But that was it. What Manly dished up otherwise was popgun stuff. They would miss 52 tackles. They now sit seventh on the ladder and friendless. Confidence won’t be high after successive thumpings.

As for the Storm, they have threats across the park: giant bodies in the middle carve big hard yards; workhorse backrowers and benchmen do hard things well; Josh Addo-Carr may be the game’s fastest man, standing up Trbojevic beautifully on the death; Cameron Munster is a threat on his feet; and Suliasi Vunivalu whose 38 tries in his first two seasons puts him equal with Reg Gasnier, Larry Corowa, some of the greats.

But this was the Cameron Smith Show co-starring Cooper Cronk. There was a set piece, a switch of play by Cronk before Joe Stimson ran a good line off a short ball from Smith and banged over. Later Cronk scored off a perfect Smith grubber, a play they have ripped off hundreds of times, and practiced thousands. It was a fitting denouement performed by ornaments. And when Slater comes back they’ll be better again. And the machine will roll inexorably on.