Cameron Smith was captaining Queensland for an 11th time over four series and has led the Kangaroos for two years but insiders suggest his role in the planning and execution of the Maroons’ 26-6 drubbing of NSW in Origin II represented a benchmark performance that established the wily hooker as one of the game’s great leaders.
One of six players in the Maroons’ starting line-up on the wrong side of 30, leading to suspicions they may be on the downhill slide, it wasn’t just Smith’s man-of-the-match performance that was the after-game talking point among those who have been around the Queensland dressing room for a long while, but his subtle input that saw the Maroons completely reverse the result-setting first 20 minutes of Game One in the frenetic Suncorp Stadium clash.
Assistant coach Michael Hagan said Smith’s role in instilling head mentor Mal Meninga’s insistence of an attitude-swing, and increasing his verbal input, was a crucial factor in the Maroons keeping the 2013 series alive.
Smith – the man who succeeded the eight-year reign of the game’s most prolific record-breaker Darren Lockyer (Lockyer missed the 2008 series with injury during that period) – may have led Melbourne to premierships, captained Queensland to the past two series victories, and Australia. Yet during a period when the Queenslanders bore more criticism and pressure than in the previous five series at least, Smith took his leadership qualities to a new level – on and off the field.
“He took on more responsibility this week; talked more in preparation and kept it going during the game,” Hagan told NRL.com. “It was a stand-out factor.
“In the first match Mal was not real happy with some little effort areas of the game that we normally do so well. NSW did to us in Game One what we normally do to them and set the pace of the game. Tonight was the reverse – 14-0 at half-time and we went on with it.
“That was the mindset Mal and Cameron established early in the week and the team took it on board. He was terrific, helping the young blokes like Gillett, McQueen, Papalii and Cherry-Evans, and getting the senior players to contribute more too.
“The senior players, some who had been criticised, laid the platform, and Smithy led from the front.”
Sam Thaiday, one of five club captains or co-captains in the Queensland side, also paid tribute to Smith’s increased talk and involvement, admitting if he was in Lockyer’s shadow, he’s now truly stepped out of it.
“The difference in Cam tonight was that he was a lot more vocal – and he was a lot more local leading up to the game and at training throughout the week too,” said Thaiday. “We shortened things up and made it sharper and more intense [at the training sessions] and Cam was the main leader and role model in making sure that those sessions were done well. He’s always been a fantastic player on the field who can stand up and do everything for the side but his communication was the best I’ve seen from him.
“He’s a future Hall of Famer for sure – not with what he does for Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australia but for rugby league in general with how he conducts himself.
“The beauty of what we have in this Queensland side is that we have a lot of captains of clubs and while that experience and leadership helps, we come in and respect that Cam is the captain, so all we worry about is doing our jobs well for the team and with his talk tonight and leading from the front it gave us the opportunity to play aggressively and confidently.”
Corey Parker, again outstanding after being the Maroons’ best forward in Game One, chipped in: “Smithy’s an interesting one. He’s not a guy who goes around yahooing and carrying on; very similar to Locky in that when he talks you listen. He doesn’t talk for the sake of it.
“This week we were all aware of our performance in Game One and where we let each other down, not only Smithy but all the leaders in the group picked their chat up with him at the forefront.”
That was evident in the normally reticent Greg Inglis, playing his 20th Origin match, breaking tradition and speaking passionately before the team at the debutants’ jersey presentation the night before the match. Few had seen ‘GI’ so outwardly fired up.
Smith was the cornerstone of the Maroons’ early dominance that saw them shut out the Blues with a 14-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Blues did not carry the ball into Queensland’s half until only their third set in the 21st minute and had made 77 more tackles, conceding four penalties to nil.
Of all the reasons given for the domination of the Maroons one thing was obvious – when it came to completing their sets when they most needed to impact pressure and keep momentum, Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston – even though he was not fully fit and mobile – were on a different level to Mitchell Pearce, James Maloney and Robbie Farah.
All four Queensland tries were created by two or three of their trio of control men – who incidentally all are over 30.