As Cameron Smith prepares to play his 400th NRL game I reckon it is time to acknowledge he is the best player of all time.
My idol coming through the ranks as a player was Mal Meninga, and Allan Langer was the best I played with throughout my career, but I always respected the fact that Wally Lewis was the best in the game.
I only played a handful of games with Wally but he was streets ahead. The King was the King.
Smith and Lewis share similar key traits but I just reckon Cameron’s milestones are so extraordinary, aside from the way he has gone about it. He is about to play his 400th NRL game and he’s played 56 Tests and 42 Origins as well.
When asked, I say Wally will always be my No.1 player, but there is something special about Smith. In that eight Origin series winning streak for Queensland he was integral. He will go down as the greatest ever. The new "King".
If ever his team was struggling Wally would take the game by the scruff of the neck and win it on his own or with a big play. Queensland will never forget that try he scored in game two of the 1989 Origin series when the Maroons lost player after player to injury, and then the King came up with that runaway try and classic celebration.
How many times have we seen Cameron Smith come up with the big play when the Storm, Queensland or Australia needed it - whether it be a late field goal, a difficult conversion, an inch-perfect pass or a crafty grubber when no-one is expecting it?
I say take the game by the scruff of the neck, and with Cameron it is subtle. I have watched many a game where it is just the little things he does that make the difference but it is so nonchalant, and that is what makes it hard for an opposition.
Lewis was probably a bit more boisterous and noticeable when he changed games. He was more emotive on the field than Cameron. That is what made him such a compelling figure.
While the rest of us were just thinking about the upcoming play, Wally was two or three steps or more ahead of everyone. Smith is exactly the same. You will often see him point, and not say anything. It is his way of saying ‘get there’. He has already planned ahead about what is going to happen.
Cameron said this week how in the past he had Cooper Cronk to implement the Storm’s game plan and Billy Slater to create the magic and make things happen, so all he had to do was get the team in the right positions for those two to do their work. I think he was being very modest there. He doesn’t have Slater and Cronk there anymore but he is still doing exactly the same thing without them. He hasn’t missed a beat and still directs everything, and the results are the same.
Smith plays like he knows exactly what is going to happen before it does. I go back to game three of the Origin series in 2017, his last for Queensland, when Cameron Munster made his debut. I was sitting with Choppy Close and we were focused on Munster, but I kept my eye on Smith that night and it was like he had the game on a string. He ran riot and was man of the match. But when you say someone ran riot, you think they are always busy and just smashing it. For Smith it was like a chess game and he was getting NSW in checkmate well before they had made their moves.
I thought that night ‘what a special player’ and I am not a person that goes to a game to watch hookers. I like to see tries, but that night you couldn’t help but be mesmerised by him.
It is those game smarts that are why he is still performing so well at the elite level at the age of 36. It just comes naturally to him and he sees things that other players can’t. That is why you can compare him to Lewis - because he had that same vision.
They have been showing a lot of Smith’s early career games on Fox and even back then you could see how calm he was on the field.
He has founded his footy ethos on staying composed and I think Craig Bellamy has been a major influence in that. He wanted Smith to be his on-field general and that is how it has unfolded over his past 399 NRL games.
What has become clear over the years is that Smith has a very smart football mind. His father Wayne was an accomplished hooker for Easts in the old BRL competition and a coach of Logan Brothers junior sides when Cameron was coming through. It is well known that Cameron hung around those training sessions when his father was coaching older grades and absorbed everything he could about the game.
Some players are like that. They just live and breathe the game 24/7. I am the total opposite. It is all white noise to me but Smith was one of those kids that came through and listened to everything about the game and transferred that onto the field. I reckon he is going to make a great coach.
After a game I’d have a shower and get the 'going out' gear on.
After one of the series the Maroons won I went back to the team hotel in Brisbane and sat with them all night and Smith was still in his jersey. Maybe he was born in one. He has certainly worn it with distinction.