Almanac Rugby League: Shall I stay or shall I go?

 

Image: WikiCommons

 

Imagine if you will, a very young Cameron Smith fronting up with a whole gaggle of excited kids on their first day of footy training. Two captains would have been appointed and they would start picking their teams. Both captains would ignore the slightly built Smith, already shown to be slow during the sprint sessions and lacking any evasive skills. Finally, finding himself at second last pick Smith is granted a position on one of the teams. Where to put him? He was too slow to be a back and too slightly built to be a forward. Hooker was where he would eventually find himself. Smith proceeded to organise a skilful demolition of the opposing team. This is not a true story but illustrates how intangible assets, elusive as they may be are more important in the make-up of an outstanding footballer. Talent was essential but that was not enough. The desire had to be absolute and unwavering. In Cameron Smith, his talent was his mental agility, not necessarily his physical prowess. To understand his desire, one only has to watch footage of Craig Bellamy, the Melbourne Storm coach during a rugby league game. It was there for every single minute of every game for the entire season; a relentless desire to not just win but to crush their opponents, without making a single mistake. But calm heads are needed in the heat of battle and this is perhaps one of Smith’s great talents that is overlooked. He could control a game like a dispassionate accountant, always ensuring meters gained are converted into points and that the ledger always remained in his team’s favour.

 

 

But how did he do it? As Billy Slater once said ‘At dummy half, he takes the ball and then takes a small step. He doesn’t have to take this step but he does.’ This perhaps illustrates the subtlety that has made his game what it is. In taking this step, he commits a defender and so creates space. At this point he could throw a soft, short pass to a rampaging forward, drop a dainty grubber kick into the in-goal area or instigate a flowing back line move with a crisp long pass behind forward dummy runners. The key of course is to make the right decision and more often than not, he did.

 

 

There is no real point listing all his achievements, they are well known and can be found in the ‘ether.’ It is worth noting that greatness is not an orphan. In the mighty Maroons teams that dominated for a decade, Smith had players of the calibre of Lockyer, Thurston, Cronk, Inglis and Slater around him and in truth, was a junior partner in the early days when Lockyer dominated. Some including Smith himself have argued that Thurston was the greatest of all time. The truth is every team needs a core of great players to be successful. In basketball, Michael Jordan found success with the arrival of Scotty Pippin and Dennis Rodman. A Ronaldo, with his insatiable desire to be the best in the world could not lift the Portuguese soccer team to greater heights on his own. Viv Richards, well he had a whole team of talented players. Notably, the only two cricket teams since the 70’s to have dominated cricket for a decade had outstanding players from one to eleven.

 

 

Smith has for the most part been lauded but at times has been unjustly criticised. As a well know coach of the Brazilian soccer team once said, ‘It is a difficult job. You are judged every day.’ It is doubtful that he could achieve much more and perhaps better that he departs at the time of his own choosing, but that choice remains his and his alone. The debate as to whether he should continue or not will carry on but there is no debate about his legacy, one of the greatest this game has seen.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Gary, a late comment as I’ve been on a break. Smith is certainly the most resilient player the game has seen. You make a good point that the greatest teams need a core of exceptional players and, during ‘The Streak’, Queensland certainly had that group – Smith, Slater, Thurston, Inglis, Lockyer, Cronk. Their next ‘layer’, the likes of Hodges, Boyd, Price, Civoniceva, Thaiday etc, wren’t too shabby either!

    But what sorts out the greatest players is what’s between their ears and their capacity to maintain a mental calmness in the critical moments. Those abilities give them that extra split second of time to use both their instinct as well their capacity to read the play and, in the end, choose the right option. Smith has all of these qualities in spades.

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