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The Teletubby warrior: Smith's rise as NRL's rarest on-field asset

Known for his charismatic persona, Brandon Smith's on-field value is just as entertaining, a rugby league package unlike any seen in decades and a key part of Melbourne's title defence, writes Dan Walsh.

Brandon Smith takes one rock, two rocks, a few more after that, then one more for luck, and fills up Craig Bellamy's bag.

Smith takes one step from dummy-half, then two more, draws Payne Haas at marker and takes a few more strides to rule a straggling Albert Kelly out of the play.

The Storm fill up their haul with another runaway four-pointer.

Long before loading up Bellamy's luggage, Smith has either kept the champion coach young, or aged him beyond his 61 years.

Turned up hungover – straight from a night on the Townsville tiles – for their first meeting when he was plying his trade for the Cowboys in the under 20s. Wrestled him to the turf to momentarily have his way with his coach while the cameras rolling. Stole his grandson's bloody lollipop.

 
 
 
 
 
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In the minutes leading up to his dissection of a short-changed Brisbane defence in round 12, Smith had shunted Jamayne Isaako to the turf after he initially beat three Storm kick chasers.

He'd pursued Anthony Milford from marker on the next tackle and buried him too. A Haas carry drew three defenders to the Broncos behemoth, before Smith scrambled for an ill-fated offload and bullied David Mead into error.

From the next set came a familiar long-range Melbourne effort, engineered by Smith after bashing Brisbane without the ball.

Smith's back-to-back-to-back efforts against Broncos

All the wise cracks, gags and pranks off the paddock make Smith the most entertaining character in this year's finals series which kicks off with the Storm facing Manly on the Sunshine Coast on Friday night.

Football smarts, tenacity and ball-playing ability that develops just as quickly as leadership qualities, make Smith just as entertaining on it.

The Tubby years: 'He's going to be a star'

Long before Andrew Johns sized Smith up and drew comparisons to the ancient art of chasing cheese down a hill, the Storm No.9 was known as "Tubby".

As in Teletubbies. The brightly coloured, rotundly shaped children's entertainers Smith adored as a small child, to the point he threw a tantrum if he couldn't watch them daily.

Some years later, still before the Eighth Immortal's intervention, Smith was "dragging his arse around" Brisbane's Langlands Park in a 2017 Intrust Super Cup semi-final.

Easts had a pack led by Nate Myles and a side chock full of Storm players.

Brandon Smith passes for the North Queensland Cowboys under-20 team in 2016.
Brandon Smith passes for the North Queensland Cowboys under-20 team in 2016. ©NRL Photos

"Brandon had broken his wrist, gone back to training and broken it again, and then come back late in the year," then Sunshine Coast coach Craig Ingebrigtsen begins.

"He was mentally fit to go, but he hadn't played for almost 12 weeks, and whether the wrist had properly healed was another thing again.

"Melbourne said to me just play him for as long as you can, give him a spell, then put him back on and see how he goes.

Brandon Smith from Intrust Super Cup to NRL

"It got to around the 25-minute mark and he's been dragging his arse around, looked shot.

"I've sent a message out with the trainer saying 'your body language is poor' and the next 15 minutes he shut me up and belted anything that moved.

"He took their middle on and took me on too, basically saying don't question my commitment."

Brandon Smith played himself to a standstill in the 2017 Intrust Super Cup grand final for Sunshine Coast.
Brandon Smith played himself to a standstill in the 2017 Intrust Super Cup grand final for Sunshine Coast. ©qrl.com.au

A footballing tantrum had been thrown and Smith and the Falcons went through to play the PNG Hunters in the decider.

On a 33-degree Queensland day, Smith played 80 minutes at hooker and made 59 tackles in a thrilling two-point loss.

"We had to smooth a few rough edges with Brandon," Storm general manager Frank Ponissi recalls of first signing the teenager in Townsville, when he couldn't stomach breakfast sitting across from Bellamy.

"We didn't go in signing Brandon with our eyes closed put it that way.

Brandon Smith in 2018 playing for Melbourne's feeder team Brisbane Easts.
Brandon Smith in 2018 playing for Melbourne's feeder team Brisbane Easts. ©qrl.com.au

"We knew that he liked a good time … but that grand final, I remember walking into the dressing room to see the Storm players and Brandon's there slumped on the ground in the Suncorp Stadium sheds.

"Absolutely spent, he couldn't lift his head. I don't think I've seen a player that exhausted after a game, and he had almost pinched it for them. I remember walking away from that thinking 'he's going to be a star'."

The ball-player and the battering ram

Smith's tenacity and toughness has helped him play through a broken jaw in the All Stars game and rumble in the middle with NRL props that outweigh him by up to 30 kilos.

In a working class, rugby league upbringing on Waiheke island – a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland – Smith started out with "dad as the barman, mum working the canteen and me three years old, with my hands down my pants on the field trying to stay warm".

The footballing smarts that have him positioned as the number one No.9 this year come from the same place, with Melbourne and Cameron Smith adding considerable polish in recent years.

Now 25, Smith seems almost offended, certainly non-plussed when asked about the origin of his 2021 burst of creativity.

"I'm playing hooker mate, that's about it really," he laughs.

"I've spent the last five years training at lock. I barely ever trained at hooker because Cam was there. For me to be in the squad I had to play 13. I wasn't going out and practising as a No.9 because I was going out and playing at 13.

"This pre-season I trained at hooker and so it's been almost a year there now and I guess it's the muscle memory and the skill that comes with that.

I put on 20 kegs eating mi goreng and corned beef one year and didn't take all of it off.

Brandon Smith

"I'm reaping the benefits. I've still got plenty to learn and I've still got more skills around decision-making and my passing to come, it's just with the muscle repetition I want that to keep developing."

With Smith tallying double figures for tries, line breaks and assists in combination with Harry Grant, no team comes close to Melbourne's constant threatening around the ruck.

Rugby League Writers analyst Jason Oliver, with a particular eye and enthusiasm for the game's tactics, sees the same Cameron Smith plays of 2020 – barrelling the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica at goal-line defences – being replicated this year by his namesake.

But where Brandon jokes "I put on 20 kegs eating mi goreng and corned beef one year and didn't take all of it off", his own bullish running game offers a different threat attacking the try line, playing hooker or lock.

Dylan Edwards – round three, Damien Cook – round nine and Will Kennedy last week are among the smaller bodies targeted from short-range this year and turned into tries.

At 94 kilos, he's all elbows, knees and as uncomfortable to tackle as lunch with the in-laws.

At the same time, Smith doesn't need an opportunity like that presented by Brisbane earlier in the year to strike, when Kelly's moment of tardiness was promptly turned into an overlap.

NRL.com analyst and former Storm assistant Anthony Seibold is seeing more and more plays like that conjured against the Roosters in round 16, when Smith drags both markers right before passing back across the play-the-ball to send Nicho Hynes into the clear.

Brandon Smith more deception than power at hooker

"I don't overthink things or anything, but I like to play with a bit of ruck speed because I've got a power game," Smith says.

"Playing up-tempo suits me and we try to tire teams out for when Harry comes on and I slot into lock.

"He's been a pretty big help too actually, there's certainly no competition between us for the nine [jersey] or anything.

Harry Grant passes at training as Brandon Smith looks on as the Storm prepare for Friday's qualifying final against Manly.
Harry Grant passes at training as Brandon Smith looks on as the Storm prepare for Friday's qualifying final against Manly. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"He gives me tips on what I can improve and I share things that he's probably best off ignoring but I like to tell him anyway.

"We talk constantly about footy. There's nothing major but he's always grabbing me to do extra passing and talking how a certain team's going to defend us.

"It's all normal stuff, it's just a pretty open conversation."

Two for one deal: The rugby league rarity

Smith is pretty much just that. An open, entertaining conversation, as you'd expect of a man with his own line of Budgy Smugglers.

Given his and Grant's claims to regular starting hooking duties, the conversation must eventually turn to Smith's future, and whether it lies with Melbourne beyond 2022 or in another No.9 jersey.

 
 
 
 
 
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Rival clubs are backing themselves to tempt him away from the Storm in a year's time given Smith has already explored the market.

Melbourne are equally determined to keep him with their own extension offer verbally put to his camp.

"I've spoken to my manager about that but I also told him I don't really want to talk about my future right now with everything going on," Smith says.

"All the media attention, if there was a story to come out about me and my contract I wouldn't like it because it takes away a focus on what we're trying to do here - we're trying to do something extraordinary in the competition.

"I've been off to seven effing different clubs this year. I don't need that, so it's not something I want to talk about until the season's done."

Smith's ability to transition between hooker and lock makes him effectively two players in one, and incredibly valuable at that.

Just as important say Melbourne, is the leader that emerged somewhat surprisingly during this year's Origin series.

"Without a doubt, his biggest development this year," Ponissi says.

"When we were missing a lot of players through Origin or injury, he was the one driving our standards at training and games.

‘Hectic’ story behind Smith double

"It was a bit extraordinary, he took the responsibility on and it spurred him on.

"Sometimes responsibility weighs down some players. Brandon was the opposite with the leadership role."

Bellamy thoroughly enjoys the "luxury" of carrying two small bodies in Grant and Hynes on his bench that Smith's versatility allows, a potentially critical point of difference in the high-octane six-again era.

Smith in turn quips that "the weeks when I'm playing lock, I eat whatever and however much I want because I need that size in the middle."

Rugby league hasn’t seen many of his ilk or skill in quite some time.

Brandon Smith close to the line. You know the drill.

Steve Walters in his pomp probably had Smith for ball-playing ability, though never for size.

Mark Riddell did but couldn't match Smith's capacity for minutes or consistency.

Maybe the hookers of another era – the likes of George Piggins and Team of the Century rake Noel Kelly of a thoroughly different world – make for the best comparisons with a player unlike any other in the modern game.

Though it's hard to picture Piggins or "Ned" with their own range of Speedos, complete with their own cartoon caricature.

Maybe Smith really is one of a kind.