Hard-working Parramatta back-rower Ben Smith endured a bittersweet 150th NRL game on Friday night but says when he hangs up the boots at the end of 2014, he will be most proud of being able to say he played his entire career in the blue and gold.
The 29-year-old confirmed to NRL.com he would not play on either in the NRL or overseas after this year.
Smith debuted for the club in late 2004 as a centre and after a blockbusting breakout season in 2005 – when the side finished as minor premiers before losing a Grand Final qualifier to North Queensland.
His career since has been constantly interrupted by injuries – including two serious leg injuries early in his career, a pectoral injury in 2012 and a hand injury that has badly restricted his game time in his final season at Parramatta. The Eels have featured in around 230 NRL games since Smith's debut, meaning he has missed around 80 in the time it has taken him to accrue 150.
"It's taken me a while to get there but better late than never, they say," Smith told NRL.com after the loss to the Bulldogs.
"I'm very proud to get here. The thing I'm most proud of is I played all my football at Parramatta. I'm proud to say I was at Parramatta from start to finish. I'm happy and very grateful for the opportunity the club's given me over many years.
"I'll be retiring at the end of this year so to start and finish at Parramatta – I'm very grateful."
Looking back at his career, Smith has decided to not focus on the past few disappointing years to highlight some great sides of the mid- to-late-2000’s.
"Just to play first grade NRL is a massive achievement but I'm proud to say so many years later that we had some quality teams and good opportunities."
He points to a 2005 minor premiership, a grand final qualifier two years later in 2007 losing just 12-6 to eventual grand final victors Melbourne, and that amazing run to the 2009 grand final.
"We had a couple of rough years but this year there's a good feeling," Smith added.
"Over the years I've had a fair few injuries that have kept me on the sidelines, I've probably played 20 games over the past three years so that's been very frustrating for me personally. So to come out and be playing football when the team's going well, I feel fortunate just to be a part of it."
While Smith was reluctant to compare the current side with the one that went on that magical run in 2009, he said some of the components were similar – including the form of star fullback Jarryd Hayne.
"’Haynesy’ is in great form but in saying that there are so many players around him that are playing good footy. We probably haven't seen Chrissy Sandow play this good in years, he takes so much pressure off ‘Haynesy’.
"Add in Corey Norman – they're doing their job and it's helping ‘Haynesy’ do his job. There are so many forwards in good form, it's exciting for the club in the future. Hopefully if we all stick together as a unit there are good things to come."
Plenty of those forwards are barely old enough to be in first grade – Pauli Pauli (20), Junior Paulo (20), Tepai Moeroa (18), Peni Terepo (22) and Kelepi Tanginoa (20) will all only get better over the next few years.
"This is a great learning curve for them and they're only going to get better. They'll gain so much experience from this. It's positive signs for the club which is a great thing," Smith said.
Despite Friday night's loss, which means the Eels may finish the round two points adrift of eighth place, Smith said there are positives to take from the loss as the side pushes for a now-unlikely finals berth.
"It's frustrating – it's one of those games that was there for us to take but it didn't happen. That's football, they ground it out and now the next three weeks is do or die for us," he said.
"It was disappointing but the effort was there. We tried hard, it was a big game, and both teams were desperate.
"Without getting carried away too much it was almost a semi final game. Both teams wanted it desperately. We were probably the better team towards the end, we just didn't capitalise on our opportunities."
He paid credit to a quality Bulldogs outfit which he said would be there at semi finals time, and added it was good for the Parramatta side to show themselves they can compete strongly against that quality of opposition.
"It's good for us to prove to ourselves that we can play good footy. Next week [against Manly at Pirtek Stadium] is a desperate game for us and we have to win, but we can take a lot out of this game. We need to make sure we keep our heads up and turn up next week to play."
He said the side could also draw positives from its narrow loss at Brookvale in Round 3 – a game it arguably should have won bar some contentious decisions from the officials in the closing minutes.
"That game [in Round 3] showed us that as a team we can compete and play good footy. For us it's just about improving on the things but didn't capitalise on tonight.
"We know if we turn up we can give any team a shake and we have the confidence to beat any team. For us it's just about improving – the last three games we've won [against the Titans, Sharks and Raiders] haven't been our best games by any means. They've been ugly wins. Even though [against the Bulldogs] we didn't get the two points it's a step in the right direction to show that we can play against the good teams."