Smith takes an era with him
WE have become numb to the greatness of Cameron Smith.
Through sheer longevity and consistency, the two greatest hallmarks of Smith's career, we have come to take him for granted.
There are any number of stats one can point to as proof of Smith as the outlier of outliers, but the most telling is this - he has played 56 of a possible 57 Test matches since his debut in 2006 and 42 of a possible 43 Origin matches since his interstate debut in 2003.
He was rested once, against France in 2009, and it never happened again.
He missed an Origin in 2010 with an arm injury and it never happened again.
Allan Langer is the only other player to appear in 30 or more Origins in a single position.
Clive Churchill and Reg Gasnier both played 39 Tests in a single position, a full 16 behind Smith's 55 caps at hooker.
These things just don't happen. Players don't hold the Test captaincy for eight years, or stay in the team, consistently, for 12 years. Nobody plays 15 Origin series in a row.
The result of Smith's ongoing excellence, and that of Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater has propelled Queensland to unprecedented dominance.
Their mark of 12 series wins in 13 years and eight wins in a row have no parallel in Origin history and may not be matched for decades to come.
It will only be fully appreciated once normal service has resumed, and the two states trade series wins from year to year as they did for the first quarter century of Origin football.
There will be no streaks that last for players entire careers. In time, it could grow to be viewed in the same way as St George's 11 straight premierships.
That Dragons side is the closest comparison we have to the Queensland teams of recent years and the only parallel in terms of talent concentration in the history of rugby league in this country.
Since their run from 1956 to 1966 no team has won more than three premierships in a row.
Smith leaving feels like a more definitive end to an era than when Lockyer, Cronk or even Thurston walked away, perhaps because Smith always seemed like he'd be the last one out the door.
Because of his agelessness, it was natural to assume Smith would be the last link to the dawn of the golden age and his last act would be to pass the torch to the next generation.
Queensland will not fall in a heap now that Smith is gone, they'll just come back to the pack.
The Blues are now favourites to win the series, the Maroons are once again the underdogs they always pretended to be.
Origin will now tip towards the better team, not the team with the best players.
How many times during The Streak, or even before and since, did Queensland rely on their playmakers to get them out of a jam?
How many times did the Blues halves or hookers melt under the pressure while Smith or Thurston or Cronk stood up when it mattered and did the job?
Smith, Slater and Thurston combined for 13 man of the match awards from 2006 to 2017.
New South Wales players won 13 man of the match awards in total during the same period.
The Maroons will win Origin matches in the future, but they won't have all-time legends to lean on when times get tough.
Queensland could undergo a decidedly NSW-like chopping and changing over the next few years.
They might like to crow about their loyalty policy but it's easy to be loyal to all timers.
Queensland haven't had to make tough decisions on their key positions for many years. Even when one of their stars would drop out, there would be others to carry them.
The likes of Ben Hunt, Cameron Munster, Ash Taylor, Anthony Milford, Andrew McCullough and Jake Friend are fine players and may end up as Origin stalwarts.
But they might not. Like New South Wales, Queensland have a handful of good players they hope can be great, but there's no guarantees anymore.
It is no knock on any potential replacements to say they won't be as good as Cameron Smith, they could be serviceable at rep level, or even great, and it still won't be the same.
They're just like the rest of us now.
Australia have been the dominant force in Test football since the 1970s, and that dominance has continued reasonably regularly since Smith came into the side, but his departure will have lasting effects in the international game.
Just as Queensland could so often rely on the four to take control when the game was in the balance, so could Australia.
It may not seem like it right now because Australia trounced all opposition during their last two tournaments and are unbeaten under Mal Meninga, but the gap is narrower than it ever has been before and now that Smith has joined Cronk and Thurston in rep retirement there may be no gap at all.
England came within inches of winning the World Cup last year. New Zealand are not far removed from securing three straight wins over Australia for the first time and have more elite level players than at any point in their history.
The Tongan horde are just scratching the surface of the kind of team they can be.
The rest of the world is coming down the hill, and Australia, for the first time in a decade, do not have certain selections in the halves or at hooker, and there is no fait accompli in terms of the captaincy.
As with Origin, normal service will now resume. Players will be in the Test side for two years or four years, but not 12 years. Every facet of rugby league history says such runs are outliers, atypical of rugby league as a sport.
Australia would still be favourites in any game they play, but when the whips are cracking and they're relying on a good player rather than a great it could be enough to turn victory in defeat.
At the highest levels of the game, the margins are just that slim.
The gods are dead, the empire is shaking and the barbarians are hammering at the gates and Cameron Smith can't save them anymore.