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It took 111 years to get a 400-game player but it may only take six or seven more seasons to get the next one.

Cameron Smith may only have a short reign out on his own as the man who has played the most first-grade games.

Very, very short if you include Dragons prop James Graham. He will play NRL game No.174 this weekend. Add to that his 224 games in Super League with St Helens and he will reach 400 in a fortnight in round 21.

So let's look at some of the likely local candidates to catch the great Storm, Queensland and Australian hooker's milestone.

Of course there is also the question of how the much-vaunted "300 Club", seen as quite elusive and exclusive just 10 years ago, is now becoming the new "200 Club", still a great achievement but far more attainable these days.

"I did a list the other day of when players achieved their 300 games and obviously the rate is increasing," renowned rugby league statistician David Middleton told NRL.com.

"If you looked at a graph it would be a pretty steep one year by year the number of players getting to 300."

Raiders co-captain Jarrod Croker.
Raiders co-captain Jarrod Croker. ©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

For those thinking the position you play on the field – hookers usually make the most tackles – might be a factor in stopping a player getting to No.400, Smith blew that theory out of the water.

And add to that Andrew McCullough (250 games) and Jake Friend (243). They both haven't turned 30 yet. Smith turned 36 just before he flicked the switch on game 400.

I hear the argument "Ahh, but they don't do the hit-ups".

Well Wade Graham (222), aged 28, and Kevin Proctor (233), aged 30, are on the list Middleton compiled of players that could reach 400.

The two players closest to 400 – Cooper Cronk (363) and Paul Gallen (341) – have their own stories. Both are retiring at the end of the year so they won't get there.  

For Cronk, was there any temptation to push for one more year, considering he's on track to finish 2019 just 27 games short of 400?

The number of players being able to play every club game in a NRL season is steadily climbing as well. In 2000, 23 players didn't miss a game. That figure climbed to 45 in 2018.

The first player to reach 300 was former Eels, Sea Eagles and Panthers forward Geoff Gerard in 1986.

"There was about another five years before the next one came along. But now the frequency of 300 games is clearly on the rise. You only have to look at this year with Benji Marshall and Gavin Cooper doing it on the same day and that has never happened before," Middleton said.

Robbie Farah on Friday became the 39th player to reach 300 – but the fifth for 2019.

So who is nipping at Smith's heels, and still playing into the 2020s?

Who's your favourite teammate?

Mitchell Pearce (270) and Jarrod Croker (248) look the most likely. When Pearce turned 30 in April he was six games ahead of where Smith was on his 30th birthday.

Croker will turn 29 the first finals week in September. He is 29 games ahead of where Smith was when he turned 29 in June 2012. Croker also hasn't had rep football to impede his progress – rightly or wrongly.

Pearce through an alcohol-related suspension in 2016 (eight games) and a torn pectoral in 2018 (10 games), missed virtually a season.

Dragons halfback Ben Hunt doesn't turn 30 until 2020 and he's due to pass 230 games before the Telstra Premiership ends this year.

Most of the last two decades have been 24 games a year, for the NRL competition. So between 25 and 28 depending on how many finals games can be included is the best-case scenario for a player each year. 

From the top 20 on the list of 300-gamers more than a third made it in 16 years. If a player plays 24 games for 15 years he gets to 360 games. Play for 17 seasons and you get to 408.

"But realistically it is hard to play every game. To get through an average of over 20 games per season is a really tough thing to do," Middleton said.

"Regardless of sports science and rehab improvements, there are so many things that can trip a player up like an off-field incident, some suspensions, or a long-term injury like a knee, shoulder or pec and there goes the season."

Graham didn't drop as many games as others with an ACL tear because it happened towards the end of last year – most of the nine months rehab was over the off-season.

The Cronulla forward made it back in round 13, although now he is off with a hamstring strain. He's only played three club games in 2019.

Friend's 400 chances have taken a big hit with his torn biceps muscle problems limiting him to just five games in 2019 – he's virtually missed a season.

"It just makes Cameron Smith's achievement all the more freaky because he's averaged over 20 games a year in 18 seasons," Middleton said.

Contenders for 400 games

(Courtesy of League Information Services)

Mitchell Pearce

Born:                               April 7, 1989, Sydney, NSW (age 30)

NRL games:                   270

Position:                         Halfback

First Grade Debut:        Sydney Roosters 2007 (Rnd 2)

Andrew McCullough

Born:                               January 30, 1990, Dalby, QLD (age 29)

NRL games:                   251

Position:                         Hooker

First Grade Debut:        Brisbane  2008 (Rnd 10)

Jarrod Croker

Born:                               September 11, 1990, Goulburn, NSW (age 28)

NRL games:                   248

Position:                         Centre

First Grade Debut:        Canberra 2009 (Rnd 2)

Ben Hunt

Born:                               March 27, 1990, Rockhampton, QLD (age 29)

NRL games:                   228

Position:                         Halfback

First Grade Debut:        Brisbane 2009 (Rd 15)

Wade Graham

Born:                               October 25, 1990, Blacktown, NSW (age 28)

NRL games:                   222

Position:                         Second Row

First Grade Debut:        Penrith 2008 (Rd 15)

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.

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