Cameron Smith announces his rep retirement. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)
Cameron Smith announces his rep retirement. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)

The scrawny kid who went the distance

PEOPLE thought Kevin Walters was joking but the message was serious.

When Cameron Smith first played State of Origin back in 2003 he was "a scrawny kid ... and he still is.''

Therein lies the truly magical storyline behind one of rugby league's greatest careers.

When Cameron Smith started his Origin career people said he looked like a bank teller who went to war. Perhaps his greatest achievement was coming back from the war still looking like a bank teller.

Of all his many achievements in rugby league - the records, the premierships, the trophies - the one that simply makes the jaw drop is simply how the "scrawny kid'' simply went the distance.

There he sat before the cameras, the man who has made more tackles than anyone else in rugby league, who has touched the ball 2000 times more than anyone in Origin, with no sign of a scratch on his face. I squinted at the television and could not even pick up a broken eyelash.

Nor was there any scars on his knees or a telltale limp. In a game becoming dominated by Incredible Hulks he proved that you don't have to have the build to star in the Avengers Infinity War to make it to the top and stay there.

It is an achievement he can be proud of and a message the game should cherish ... you don't have to be the biggest, the fastest or the strongest to be the best.

Smith's story remains a monument to virtues of the game's purest yet sadly declining breeding ground - backyard football.

Fittingly he mentioned his upbringing playing football in his backyard at Logan where game after game, day after day he conditioned his body and his brain for so many of the challenges the game would later throw at him.

Smith joins Gorden Tallis and Maroons camp in 2003. (David Kapernick)
Smith joins Gorden Tallis and Maroons camp in 2003. (David Kapernick)

By playing a million backyard games he learnt not simply how to tackle but how not to tackle and how to be tackled. When to fight a tackle and when to fold. When to pass. When to run.

By the time he reached the top his game was as instinctive as touch typing.

Now that he is gone from Origin forever you wonder where the game will find another like him, because had he relived his school years today he may have spent his afternoon indoors playing on computers and not become the player he was.

Smith didn’t look the part — but he played it better than anyone. (Wayne Jones)
Smith didn’t look the part — but he played it better than anyone. (Wayne Jones)

Andrew McCullough is ready for the role as the new No.9.

Like Smith he is slick, understated and relentless. He may not quite be the supreme game manager that Smith is but who is?

The Maroons captaincy is more complicated.

Billy Slater was the first name Kevin Walters mentioned as a candidate for he is the backline master of ceremonies with a brilliant eye for plays and a voice that those in front of him crave to hear.

Only last week Cameron Munster said "I see Billy go through the plays every week ... it's just amazing. I don't know how he does it.''

Walters appreciation for Slater's match-reading skills was enhanced when he joined him in the State of Origin coaching box while injured.

But while Slater was the first name mentioned Greg Inglis might be the best choice.

He is closer to the action at centre and is a club captain at Souths and an Origin veteran. Slater has rarely had to worry about captaincy because he was born on the same day as Smith and wherever he went for club, state and country so did his long-time teammate.

Inglis may not be into Churchillian addresses but since when has an Origin team ever needed revving up anyway?

The Maroons dynasty isn’t over yet. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
The Maroons dynasty isn’t over yet. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Better to have a leader who radiates a cool, calm authority. Smith did this. Inglis can be Inglis. Just walking out behind him will be inspiring enough given his physical presence.

Smith is such an important part of the Maroons dynasty that within minutes of his announcement bookmakers had wound NSW from $1.70 into $1.53, the sort of price adjustment normally seen only when Johnathan Thurston was ruled out of the Cowboys.

New hooker, new captain, new goal-kicker ... Queensland seemed shaken, down and out.

Just where they love to be.

 

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