Is there a possibility of true love developing for Cameron Smith as he completes his last lap in rugby league, or does he have to keep going around until there is?
The long-time Australian captain’s polarising effect is as unique as his own greatness. He might be, as Andrew Johns proposes, the greatest rugby league player of all. Yet it’s hard to imagine old crusties sitting around the fire reminiscing about some unforgettable Cameron Smith play, or warmly declaring that they saw him, as they will about Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis or other greats of this era. Smith’s arts are subtler and, many say, darker; he might have to settle for being, unquestionably, the most valuable player of all, the one whose presence had most influence on his team winning games.
Despite a peerless career, Cameron Smith has always found it difficult to be loved outside of Melbourne and Queensland.Credit:Getty
Neutrals will be attracted by some of the Cinderella possibilities – the Penrith revival, Parramatta’s eternal quest, the Raiders’ bid to redress what happened last year – but the hackles of disappointed followers rise and settle on the two superpowers, the Roosters and the Storm. Who is your enemy’s bigger enemy?
When it comes to the Roosters, who might have been a less-worse option in previous years, the recruitment of Sonny Bill Williams was a final straw, the club taking the piss out of the piss they had already been taking out of the salary cap. And now that they have a lot of injuries – which has never happened to any other club! – the Roosters demand concessions.
Melbourne, equally depleted by injuries, are steadily taking the ‘grudging’ out of ‘admiration’. No club has had to endure as much inconvenience and dislocation due to COVID-19. No city has suffered as much, and if anyone deserves a break right now it’s Melbourne. Craig Bellamy continues to ply his singular manufacture of silk purses out of sow’s ears: so many NRL players are not much chop before they pay for the Storm, and not much chop after, but are somehow at their best for Bellamy. When you hear commentators praise Melbourne, it is often for their smart decision-making and attention to detail.
Wouldn’t you love to support a team that made smart decisions and paid attention to detail? And then there are the undoubted stars, like Ryan Papenhuyzen, who has quietly turned into a credible challenger for the title of best fullback in this era of exceptional fullbacks. Better than James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Kalyn Ponga, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck? More informed judges than me will put up the argument that Papenhuyzen belongs among these names. On Thursday, as they went down to a full-strength Parramatta, Melbourne were without their entire spine apart from Papenhuyzen, who set about playing all four positions and nearly pulled it off.
Melbourne have beaten the Roosters twice this season, most recently without Smith. (Melbourne also manage to have produced, in Brandon Smith, the best back-up hooker in the competition, and, in Harry Grant, a third-stringer they can afford to loan out to win a Dally M at another club. St Kilda Road never boasted so many high-class hookers.)
Melbourne may not win the competition, but whoever does win it will have to get past them. And they will have to get past Smith. It’s quite possible that the guessing game he is conducting over his future depends on an outcome he does not know: does he need one last grand final win before he knows if he’s had enough? Still, this could be the closing chapter, and it might be time for the haters to reconsider. This is the all-time MVP, and it would be a shame to have spent his career irritated by him.
Smith was injured, missing consecutive games for the first time since the Obama administration, when Parramatta beat Melbourne, who missed him greatly. The Immortal showed signs of mortality. Weirdly, I missed him almost as much. When I told my son I was developing feelings for Smith and the Storm, he asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ What is wrong with me? I might be changing my mind, that’s what. In these times when the world is poisoned by so much unchallengeable certainty – the antidote to all the obvious uncertainties – to change your mind about one tiny thing may be the best you can do. Go Cam. Go Storm. I can almost, almost say it. But before the MVP leaves the stage, what harm can it do to think it?
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