IF Cameron Smith isn’t the best rugby league player I’ve seen, he’s certainly in the grand final, playing against Andrew Johns in golden-point extra time.
After his surprise retirement this week from representative football, it’s a timely juncture to reflect on Smith’s remarkable career record.
He’s played in more first-grade games (368) than any player in history. He appeared in 42 Origins, for 26 wins. To put that in context, Smith has won more Origin games than Johns played in total (23).
His 56 Tests are more than twice Joey managed. He’s won four grand finals, although two don’t count, because of the salary cap scandal, and is just 151 points shy of Hazem El Masri’s individual pointscoring record. Given that he usually makes between 40 and 50 tackles a game, it would be hard to imagine any player in the code’s history has shouldered a bigger defensive workload.
All in all, his future among the game’s Immortals is unquestionable. The only debate is whether he deserves to rate as the greatest player of all time.
Diehard Knights fans, of course, will always vote for Joey. They can argue that while Smith has shared top billing at various stages of his career with Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, there was a time when Johns was basically in a league of his own.
Between 1996 and 2001, nobody came close to the Newcastle halfback. Not even the likes of Brad Fittler, Allan Langer and Darren Lockyer.
Comparing one maestro to another becomes a case of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
But even Joey’s staunchest supporters would struggle to deny that Smith wins hands down as a role model and ambassador for the 13-man code.
I can’t remember a rugby league player who has been so polished and poised in dealing with the media.
There are any number of elite sportspeople around the world who fall victim to fame and fortune and lose control of their egos.
Then there are those like Roger Federer, who retain their humility and somehow manage to transcend their sporting achievements.
From my experience, Smith has a similar aura.
I’ve attended plenty of his post-match press conferences over the years and always noted the down-to-earth manner in which he answers questions.
Where some athletes, especially in defeat, regard such appearances as a chore, Smith seems to understand and appreciate the responsibility that accompanies his status.
There have been a couple of examples in recent years that spring to mind.
Earlier this season, after Melbourne’s 40-14 win against Newcastle at AAMI Park, I asked Smith whether rookie Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga was ready for Origin. It would have been easy for him to sidestep the question or downplay Ponga’s prospects.
“I’m not a selector, so it’s not my place to comment,” he could have answered, or: “There are probably a lot of established Test players ahead of him in the pecking order.”
Instead Smith sized up the question and delivered a response that he must have known would provide Ponga with hope and encouragement.
“If you’re playing well enough and you're the best person for that position in the team, throw him in there,” Smith said.
"I got an opportunity to play State of Origin after 14 [NRL] games, so if he's playing well enough, and he's the best person to play well in the Queensland State of Origin team, I can't see why you wouldn't select him. … you just see him, when he's got the ball, he's got some freakish ability about him, and that's something that I don't think has been coached.
“It's just natural talent. So if he keeps working hard at his training, and I've heard he's a good kid, he's very respectful around the Newcastle Knights club and works hard, and if he continues to do that, I can only see his star keep rising and representative opportunity will be around the corner pretty soon.”
He was similarly gracious in 2016, when the Storm staged a great escape to beat a struggling Newcastle team 18-14.
“I thought they were very brave,’’ Smith said of Nathan Brown’s young tyros.
“They lost two guys before half-time, so they essentially played the majority of the game with 15 men, and they nearly beat us – in Melbourne ... I thought it was a great effort by that team today. They’ve got a lot of young guys that are new to the NRL, with not a lot of experience, but they certainly put in a very strong effort. I’ve seen a couple of their games this year. Effort’s not an issue for them. If they keep turning up like they did against us, I can’t see a win being too far away from them.’’
Smith was spot-on. Boosted by his uplifting words, the Knights beat Wests Tigers 18-16 a week later. Unfortunately it was to be their only win that season.
The aforementioned are just two examples of Smith’s statesmanlike qualities.
His retirement this week from rep football was a reminder that his magnificent career is approaching full-time.
When he finally decides to hang up the boots, rugby league will lose a priceless asset – one of those rare champions who is as valuable off the field as he is on it.