dIf Cameron Smith isn’t retiring, he’s doing a mighty good impression of someone on a farewell tour.
When he left the field in the 75th minute of Melbourne’s preliminary final win over Canberra, he did so on the far side of the ground and embarked on a long journey back to the bench.
Whether or not he knew what he was doing, the Queensland crowd gave him a standing ovation as he completed an impromptu and unofficial half-lap of honour.
After dodging a quick couple of questions from broadcasters about his future, the team celebrated with the Storm fans in Brisbane, before coach Craig Bellamy apparently stitched Smith up.
He pulled the 37-year-old aside and told him to get on the shoulders of Jesse Bromwich and Dale Finucane. The rest of the team formed a guard of honour and a smiling Smith was showered with enough electrolytes to power a small army.
Bellamy said he just thought it would be “a nice photo” and a nice gesture to the Queenslanders who have supported him for almost two decades.
Smith said he didn’t know, albeit giving the sense of a man who was tired enough of being asked the question that he might just call it quits in there and then.
But it’s not by the talk or the moments of grandeur that Smith will be remembered; rather by the on-field brilliance, individually and as a team, be that with Melbourne, Queensland or Australia.
On Friday night, the Storm’s hot start meant Smith didn’t have to play the mastermind. He didn’t have to orchestrate or play the role of the wizard making defences go where he wants them to go and allowing his teammates to capitalise.
And yet he still managed to offer up one more (last?) trademark moment for the Lang Park massive.
When Raiders winger Nick Cotric broke down the right flank in the 66th minute, Smith was tracking back, but looked like a St Bernard chasing a greyhound.
When Cotric chipped over the top, Josh Addo-Carr stormed past his skipper and was set to be the hero, until a nasty bounce popped over the more traditionally athletic chasers and into the hands of Cotric with the line at his mercy.
The game was already in the Storm’s hands, but still Smith wouldn’t let Cotric out of his grasp, driving his deceptively powerful frame in the opposite direction of the “strong bugger” who was three years old when Smith made his NRL debut.
Cotric must have thought he could overpower the veteran, because he looked off a wide-open teammate for a simple offload and only realised too late that he was stuck in Smith’s tractor beam, knocking on as he tried to make amends.
It was fitting that he ended the game with a huge pad on his lower back, a classic old man injury, with some extra protection on his left shoulder.
Next Sunday will mark Smith’s 430th NRL game since making his debut in 2002 and he’s played all bar a couple in the teeth of the defence and as the pivot point in attack.
After 18 seasons, the bumps and bruises should turn into cracks and contusions, but as long-time teammate Cooper Cronk said on the Fox Sports coverage, he’s too smart to even get injured because he never gets himself into the wrong positions.
It now seems almost certain that next week’s grand final will be his last NRL game and while a third official premiership would be a spectacular way for one of the game’s greats to go out, it would be foolish to suggest he or the club needs it.
Smith will have played in eight grand finals since 2006. He would say he’s won four (the record books say two) but as Smith said, getting there is hard enough.
“Some people judge success as winning a grand final, [but] I’m just really proud of the way this footy side seems to front up every year,” he said after Friday’s win.
Next Sunday’s game against Penrith or South Sydney will be their fourth decider in the past five seasons (an achievement no other team has even come close to in recent years) and their fifth in nine years, which may be even more outlandish considering the turnover in rugby league teams.
Especially since this dynasty was supposed to end after the salary cap scandal tore the team apart in 2010.
Since then, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and any number of other players have walked through the Storm system.
Few were stars when they arrived, but Melbourne’s machine helped them become just that, either in house (like Ryan Papenhuyzen or Jahrome Hughes) or elsewhere (players like James Maloney or Wallabies star Marika Koroibete).
Through it all, Smith and Bellamy have been the Sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Reliable and bright.
So of course it was Bellamy who pushed the unassuming Smith onto his teammates’ shoulders and into the spotlight.
Regardless of Smith’s plans, it ensures it will be impossibly awkward if Smith does want to play on next year.
While this year had a few distractions and Smith was clearly perturbed by the constant speculation, another year (in Melbourne at least) risks becoming a farcical sideshow, and he deserves better than that.