In April 2002, Melbourne were short a halfback against Canterbury. With regular Matt Orford and back-up Marty Turner out, coach Mark Murray plucked an untested kid from Norths Devils and sent him onto the Olympic Park pitch alongside internationals and other figures long habituated to the rigours of first grade.
The Bulldogs took the points, but the 18-year-old’s debut was composed and unflustered. Match commentators remarked on his kicking game and said he was “certainly a player of the future”.
Eighteen years after that unheralded teenager got his first taste of NRL at No 7, Cameron Smith might be about to savour his last as perhaps the best hooker the league has seen.
Should the Storm lose Friday night’s preliminary final to the Canberra Raiders, his 429th NRL game could be his last for the club to which he dedicated his entire career and has been the backbone of during the successful Craig Bellamy era. It will be his 56th outing at Suncorp Stadium, where he made his State of Origin debut in 2003 and produced many a Maroons moment thereafter.
Golden oldie status does not come easy in the NRL. But, at 37, Smith can no longer be trusted to age in the fashion of a regular human. The prospect of surpassing 400 games would have been deemed inconceivable in his early playing years. Add State of Origin appearances and Tests for Australia, and the NRL’s oldest player has more than 520 games.
Smith has previously credited sports science’s sweeping advancements for helping him push past the retirement age of many peers. It is a sign of such devilish longevity that Billy Slater – Queensland selector and the second third of Melbourne’s former triumvirate – can hint at a potential State of Origin comeback and the very concept does not seem absurd.
This time of year often occasions the obligatory Cameron Smith retirement hypotheses. The man himself generally responds with a suitably vague remark not unlike the one he offered following 2019’s preliminary final loss to the Roosters: he will have a break and see “if I go from experienced to elderly in an off-season”.
He has finished the past two seasons without confirming either way, only to re-sign. The title narrowly evaded the Storm in both. Now he finds himself on the premiership cusp again, in a campaign during which he has set up a career-high number of tries, and under external pressure to make a call as understudies Brandon Smith and Harry Grant wait in his shadow.
“Given my form this year, I feel I’m playing well,” Smith said before last month’s qualifying final win over Parramatta. “I’m certainly enjoying it as much as I have. It’s funny, I talk to a couple of my ex-teammates, and the reason that they gave the game away is they knew they just couldn’t do any more. At the moment I don’t feel that way.”
Love him or loathe him – it’s generally the latter for any fan sandwiched between the Victorian and Queensland borders – Smith’s legacy is built on being consistently better than everybody else, in a manner sometimes so understated that his exceptional game management is only fully discernible in his absence.
Not that there haven’t been party tricks. Sometimes, like in 2016’s 46-0 rout of the Roosters, he slips right off his heels and still converts. Then there was round one in 2014, when he booted a 22-metre field goal several minutes into overtime to seal a 23-22 golden-point win over Manly. His post-match concession that, at 31, it was his first field goal since playing Under-16s for the Logan Brothers, was more surprising than the fact he actually pulled it off. Bellamy said he would not have assigned him the task had he known. But then, what’s the use in knowing if your player is prone to pleasant surprises?
There were unpleasant ones, too. Last year’s “wingnut” tackle on Raiders youngster Bailey Simonsson drew a warning from the NRL, and referee-whispering allegations have become a fond tradition amid other controversial incidents speckling a reign bulging with individual honours.
But they are offset by classy moments, such as his concern over Josh Hodgson when his Canberra hooking counterpart tore his ACL in the Storm’s round-nine win over the Raiders. Hodgson’s absence on Friday allocates additional responsibility to Josh Papalii and Joseph Tapine, whose tearaway try ripped the Roosters apart last Saturday. Similar sorcery would not go astray against a well-rested Storm side hoping to send their talisman out with another premiership.
“No player has played more games than Cameron Smith, and arguably no player has played it better than him,” Slater said of his former teammate this week. “He doesn’t rely on his speed or strength or anything like that – those attributes that you lose as you get a little bit older. He’s still the smartest player in the game.”
Guardian Australia will liveblog the preliminary final between Melbourne Storm and Canberra Raiders on Friday night. Kick-off at Suncorp Stadium is at 7:50pm AEDT