Smith on lost premierships, sacrifices, Cronk, and being 'the greatest'

It was the summer of 2002. Melbourne's preseason training session at Gosch's Park had come to a grinding halt.

A baby-faced Cameron Smith had just thrown a simple left-to-right pass from dummy half to Matt Orford, only for coach Craig Bellamy to intervene.

"Craig actually pulled up the whole session and squared me right up in front of everyone," Smith recalled.

Bellamy wasn't happy. This Smith character, who at the time hadn't played a single game in the NRL, had just thrown a pass that forced Orford to pick it up off his boot laces.

The coach approached Smith, with all of his teammates watching on.

The fiery coach gave the young hooker a piece of his mind.

"He told me if I didn't improve my passing, I'd be looking for another job," Smith said.

"It's fair to say I jumped in a few of the extras at the end of every training session from that day on to improve my passing game to make sure there wasn't another incident like that again. It was highly embarrassing to say the least."

That was the first and one of the last sprays Smith copped from Bellamy throughout a decorated career that on Saturday will hit the 400-game mark.

A career that's had the ultimate highs and the shattering lows.

A career that has seen him sacrifice almost three years of his life in hotel rooms away from his family.

A career that will more than likely be remembered as the best of any. 'The GOAT' they call him. The greatest of all time.

"Every time someone mentions that to me or calls me that, I just laugh," Smith said.

"Because from my point of view, I look at other players in the game, guys like Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk and Greg Inglis – these are the guys that come to mind in regards to the greatest players of all time.

"There are many more in that category that I didn't get a chance to see properly. It was never a goal of mine to get people to say I'm the greatest player ever or one of the greatest players to play the game. I just wanted to be the best footballer I can be."

Erased from history

Premierships, Origin series victories, World Cup triumphs, Dally M medals … you name it, Smith has done it.

More points, more games, more success than any other player before him.

But the lows have been as heartbreaking as the highs have been heart-warming.

Listening to endless chants from opposition fans labelling him and his teammates as "cheats".

"2010 was a really challenging season to get through," Smith said.

"There were days and weeks in that year where I said to myself ‘I don't want to do this anymore, what am I doing this for'. That was probably part of the challenge, when we were on the road playing teams at their home grounds, listening to the crowd. We copped a fair bit of abuse. Some people agree with it, some don't. It is what it is for me.

"That year, not playing for points, losing premierships and what was being said at games, that all built up on everyone at the club. But never did I feel, and I'm hoping the rest of the boys too, that we were [cheats]."

There will always be an asterisk in the record books. Asterisks next to the Melbourne Storm for what was deemed systematic rorting of the salary cap.

The engravings on the trophy. Gone.

But the memories? The memories live on.

"I was there," Smith said of the grand final wins that have been wiped from history.

"You've heard other players, Bill [Slater] and Coops [Cronk] in particular, say we were there, we played the match and we have the memories. I think those two boys have the tattoos – I don't because I'm a clean skin. But the memories are there. They'll never be taken away from us. Whether the official record is gone from the history books, that's not up to us. Our memories will always be there. They'll be there for me. The feelings around that will never change.

"I'm certainly going to retire a very content person. I've been lucky to win premierships, play Origin and represent my country. I've played in All Star matches, played in front of big crowds and wonderful stadiums. There's nothing that when I finish that I will feel that I was robbed of."

The ref whisperer

Smith has often been referred to as the third referee. He cops it for his genius. For a perception that with his mannerism and words can manipulate the officials.

At first, it bothered Smith.

But over time he's learnt to deal with the endless criticism that comes from his relationship with the match officials.

"I'm okay with it. I don't know whether it's a compliment or not," he said,

"All I try and do is try and approach the referees the way I like the referees to treat other captains. A lot of fans from other teams think that they're on my side or I'm one of them or I can somehow dictate the way they referee or somehow give us penalties. I guess early on you probably get a little bit annoyed by it, but now I've just learnt to deal with it. I just laugh at it. You know the sort of character I am, it's water off a duck's back for me.

"You have got to understand the game, as a captain you need to know the game and know the rules quite well. You have to understand the way the match officials are looking at the game. All I've tried to do is have an open communication with the referees throughout the match.

"I'm not about just running up to the refs when there's a penalty and just blowing up. I have dialogue throughout the whole match about where the game is going and what things my team is doing well and not doing well. I'm not the ref whisperer that people think I am. I don't have the ability to put them in trances, or what everyone thinks I do."

The sacrifices

When Smith shocked the rugby league world and retired from representative football on the eve of last year's Origin series, a large part of the reason was to give back to the people who have given up so much for him to live out his dream.

Throughout his career Smith has had to sacrifice family for rugby league, admitting how difficult that has been at times.

"I played 42 Origin games, each game is roughly 10 days per camp, so that's over a year of my life I spent in Origin camp alone," he said.

"That's not including the tours overseas and all the Storm games played away. That alone paints the picture of the sacrifices, particularly that my wife has made. We don't have any family down here. My wife is from Logan like myself. All of her family and my family are still back there. We don't have anyone to help out with sick kids or whinging kids. Or if she wants to duck down to the shop and leave the kids with family. There's no one around.

"I remember when my young bloke was born in '09. He was born in August and a few months later we headed off on the Four Nations for six weeks. He was three months old when I took off, and when I came back he was a totally different kid. He went from this baby to this big chunky thing sitting up by himself and doing all these different things I hadn't seen before.

"I know people look at footballers and the money they make and what we do for a job, but there are plenty of sacrifices. But the main sacrifice they make is with their family – the ones they love. You miss out on a lot of special moments and special times. "

Cooper Cronk

Smith may well go down as the greatest of all time, but so too will his combination with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.

The Big Three. A trio like no other.

While that legacy will live on, much has been made of the soured relationship between Cronk and Smith over the past 12 months.

But as he prepares to run out for game 400, fittingly in the top two most capped players alongside Cronk, Smith had nothing but compliments for his former partner in crime.

"I don't want to go back in the past and speak about what other people have said or any other rumours," he said.

"I just want to talk about Coops and what he's achieved in his career. For when he started, as a guy who didn't really have a specific position in our club, Craig knew he had a handy footballer on his hand and a guy who loves competing. He just worked really hard to make him a full-time halfback.

"For what he was able to achieve and what he did to build the game of rugby league down here and build the brand of the Melbourne storm was quite remarkable. What he's achieved stacks up against anyone who has played the game. It's a credit to him and the hard work he's put into his game, from when he first came down to now."

 

Be there to witness history as Cameron Smith plays his milestone match - Tickets available