A handshake agreement between Cameron Smith and Melbourne could mean the champion hooker hangs up the boots at the end of 2019.
Smith, who is expected to this year become the first player to notch 400 NRL games, doesn’t have a clause in his new two-year deal with Melbourne.
However, NRL.com has been told there is a mutual understanding between the skipper and the club that he could pull the pin after this season.
There was some hesitation from the Storm over whether to commit to Smith for another two years, but the game’s longest-serving player has assured the club he would be in close dialogue with coach Craig Bellamy throughout this season and will decide together if this should be his last.
Smith, who will be 36 by the end of this year, has arguably been in career-best form in recent seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down.
However, he is not naive to the fact his form, and mental capacity to keep playing, could change very quickly.
"Just to clarify it, I’m happy to be up front – there’s no option in the contract. It’s a two-year contract," Smith told NRL.com when asked about the potential of finishing up this year.
Smith no certainty to play in 2020
"But when we were having discussions about me re-signing for two years I made it quite clear to everyone involved that I’d be discussing where I was at through the 2019 season with Craig and how he felt I was travelling.
"If he felt that it was better to finish off this year then I would take that on board. But before it even got to Craig I would know myself. I would know whether I was happy with my form or whether my involvement or contribution to the team was deteriorating.”
Part of Smith’s desire to sign a two-year deal was to avoid an undoubted media frenzy over whether he would be extending his career into 2020.
But a potential retirement at the end of the year is unlikely to be disruptive on the Storm given they have a ready-made replacement in Brandon Smith.
The Storm are conscious that if Smith were to retire, it would be easier to plan their salary cap structure for the future if he didn’t wait until after this season to decide.
As it stands Smith is confident he will be able to play on for another two years and notch up a remarkable 19 seasons as an NRL player.
"I was feeling that good that instead of locking away 12 months, why not two years," he said.
"Because in my mind if I locked in 12 months and then it got to May or June this year, then I’d have to start that whole process again.
"So I asked the question of the club, would two years suit the club.
"It took some time for them to discuss that and position themselves around the two years. They came back saying they were on board and that they were happy with it.
"I signed a two-year deal because at this stage I feel confident of getting those two years out. But if at any time throughout 2019 I feel like the game has got away from me a little bit or I just can’t handle the week to week grind, I’ll be more than happy to have a conversation with Craig about my position at the club."
The Storm have plans to use Smith differently in 2019. Brandon Smith is expected to spend some time at hooker, meaning Smith will be used as an extra half/ball-playing lock to help direct his team around the paddock.
The Storm hope having Cameron Smith sit behind the ruck will help minimise the impact of having no Billy Slater, whose guidance and direction was pivotal to Melbourne for many years.
Cowboys keep one eye on Holmes
The departure of Ethan Lowe from North Queensland to South Sydney this week could be a significant moment in the course of the season. The Cowboys had all their spots filled for 2019 when they upgraded Peter Hola last week, however Lowe’s departure opens one spot on their roster.
The conspiracy theorists will say that is for Valentine Holmes. It may well be and the Cowboys could find out as early as next month after Holmes takes part in an NFL combine in front of 32 prospective franchises. Regardless, Lowe is the kind of player who could thrive under Wayne Bennett. He took a six-figure pay cut to join the Rabbitohs on a one-year deal.
New deal for McGregor imminent
As reported by NRL.com earlier this month, Paul McGregor is on the verge of having his tenure at the Dragons extended.
It is understood the board recently gave the green light to push forward with those plans. An announcement could be made before the start of the season.
X marks the spot for exciting Xerri
Impressive Cronulla Sharks youngster Bronson Xerri is firming for a starting wing position to open the season. His preferred position is centre, but with Josh Morris and Josh Dugan likely to start the season in those positions, Xerri is likely to edge out Sione Katoa for the chance to partner Sosaia Feki on the wings in round one against Newcastle.
The Sharks have a huge opinion of Xerri, who scored a brilliant try in Saturday’s trial against Manly. They extended his contract at the end of last season until the end of 2021. There’s a chance Cronulla will unveil another debutant in round one, with Kiwi back-rower Briton Nikora in line for a bench spot given the retirement of Luke Lewis and the injury to Wade Graham.
Xerri turns on the jet boots
Luke still in Eels' sights
The news surrounding Kaysa Pritchard taking indefinite leave from the Eels helps makes sense of the club’s recent pursuit of Issac Luke. Parramatta see Reed Mahoney as the future, which is why they recently extended his deal. If Luke were to arrive at the Eels it’s expected to be as a bench player.
Stadium taking shape
The turf at the new Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta was trucked in and laid this week. The stadium is starting to take shape.
All the seats are in place and the facility has been undergoing lighting and audio checks over the past few weeks to get ready for the opening match between Parramatta and the Wests Tigers on Easter Monday.
Western Sydney Stadium nears completion
Price switch on the cards
There has been a little bit of chatter about trying to incorporate some of the old with the new at Bankwest Stadium – that includes the Ray Price statue from the old Parramatta Stadium. It has been decided there will be a place for it outside the ground – just whereabouts is yet to be determined.
Inglis to stay in centres for now
Greg Inglis will start the year in the centres as the Rabbitohs nurse him back into full fitness. Alex Johnston will wear the No.1 jersey in the opening round against the Roosters but at this stage the plan remains for Inglis to slot into the fullback role when he is physically ready to handle the rigours of the job.
Jennings puts backs on their toes
Wests Tigers recruit Robert Jennings has spent his time at the club training in the centres since being released from South Sydney last week.
With Esan Marsters a lock for one of the centre positions, Jennings is battling out with Paul Momirovski for the other centre jersey. Marsters is also expected to continue the goal-kicking duties to allow Moses Mbye to focus on his fullback and captaincy responsibilities.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.