Cameron Smith of Australia (left) and teammate Cooper Cronk celebrate winning the Rugby League World Cup final match between the Australian Kangaroos and England at Brisbane Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, December 2, 2017. (AAP Image/Dan Peled) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Cameron Smith of Australia (left) and teammate Cooper Cronk celebrate winning the Rugby League World Cup final match between the Australian Kangaroos and England at Brisbane Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, December 2, 2017. (AAP Image/Dan Peled) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Why Smith’s shock rep decision was obvious

LOOKING back now, the signs were obvious.

When Cameron Smith rang me the day before his public announcement to tell me he was retiring from representative footy, I was surprised but not shocked.

Cam is as straight up and down as you will ever find, both as a person and a player.

But he is also a man of great contradictions.

One of the funniest stories from working with him as captain and coach was last year, when the Kangaroos invited wives and partners to join the players and staff in Fiji for a get together looking ahead to the World Cup.

Cam's on-field image is of the ice-cold, unflappable star who is never rattled by anything, and never loses focus.

Yet one day, with the players and families sitting by the pool, "Mr Cool" Captain Kangaroo proved he is just like the rest of us - rousing on his kids for jumping in the deep end, rousing on them for mucking around, rousing on them for making too much noise.

I don't know if Cam heard the rest of us laughing. But for us, seeing his legendary calm facade fall away to reveal an average Aussie dad trying to pull his energetic and unruly kids into line was something to behold.

 

As coach and captain, Mal Meninga and Cameron Smith were one of Queensland’s most successful partnerships. Picture: Adam Head
As coach and captain, Mal Meninga and Cameron Smith were one of Queensland’s most successful partnerships. Picture: Adam Head

He wasn't the record-breaking premiership winner, Origin captain and Australian leader. He was just Dad. And it was great to see.

Superman is human after all.

Similarly, as a player he is the epitome of the modern-day rugby league professional.

He prepares for training and games better than anyone. He never cuts corners. He works hard of every single aspect of his game and his performance to make sure he always delivers his best.

Yet, he is still so old-school in many ways. He likes being around his mates, having a good time and a few belly laughs, and having a few beers after a game.

So many times after games as captain and coach, Cam and I would have a few beers to talk about what happened in the game. Not analysing like player and coach, but just talking like mates do at a barbie, or after a long weeks at work.

Often, other senior players would join us. More often than not, Cam and I would be the last two standing, usually pulling up stumps around 4am - just because of the clock, and not because we wanted to, or had run out of things to say.

In recent times, like in last year's World Cup, those long, post-game chats began to shorten, then become infrequent, and then stopped altogether.

There was no change in our friendship. What had changed was Cam's energy and passion for the subject matter.

These games had once meant everything to him. Now it was something he had to do, and something that was keeping him away from what mattered most to him - his family.

Looking back now, those missing chats should have told me he was ready to call it a day.

When he came into camp with the Kangaroos for the World Cup last year, I could tell he was not the same.

Cameron Smith had recently been left exhausted by his representative duties. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images
Cameron Smith had recently been left exhausted by his representative duties. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images

He was happy to be there, and God knows he always maintained his incredible standards every time he set foot on the field - at training or in a match.

But there was something missing. It had become had work for him.

At the time, I put it down to an exhausting season. Cam had enjoyed a massive year.

He had won the premiership with Melbourne, Origin for Queensland and practically every individual award available to him along the way.

He didn't win the Churchill Medal for the best player in the grand final, but it must have been a photo finish.

Coming to the World Cup, the chance for more personal glory was the last thing on his mind.

It was one more hill to climb to get the job done for his teammates, and the fans he represents.

After all the mountains he has climbed in his sport, he has now earned his rest.

Cameron Smith was the game’s best player in 2017, but it took a huge toll on him. Picture: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Cameron Smith was the game’s best player in 2017, but it took a huge toll on him. Picture: AAP Image/Dave Hunt

While we talk about the undoubted greatness of Johnathan Thurston and the things he can do on the field, it is worth remember that Smithy has reached his level of greatness while playing in the middle of the field - producing all of his magic while getting through 40-50 tackles per game.

Cam's tackle efficiency also sits at 90 per cent. For players on an edge, a coach looks for efficiency of about 75 per cent.

When we talk about the greatness of Billy Slater, we talk about how he redefined the way his position is played with his incredible skills. He became the training manual for the position.

Cam is the same, he changed the expectations about what is required of the modern hooker.

Before Cam, Steve Walters was widely considered the best hooker in the game because he played like an extra forward.

Cameron Smith wants to spend more time with his family. Picture: Brett Costello
Cameron Smith wants to spend more time with his family. Picture: Brett Costello

Cam can make metres, even off the back foot like Steve did. But Cam can also organise, create and kick. He plays like an extra half.

Cam's decision to stand down from rep footy is a shame, and I say that selfishly as a fan, because I just loved watching him play at the highest level.

But if his decision means he will play on even longer at club level - and I think it will, given he still loves and enjoys the game - then that can't be bad thing.



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