This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
I am ashamed to reveal this, but I was once a rugby league fan that disliked Cameron Smith.
To be fair, my distaste was not just about Cameron. It extended to the entire Melbourne Storm team, particularly Smith, then Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
As a Parramatta Eels fan, it was very easy to be bitter and jealous of a team that had beaten my own in the 2009 Telstra Premiership grand final.
I did not go into that grand final expecting to win. The Eels had given me enough joy that season after a seven-game winning streak, which saw us just scrape into the finals.
But when it was later revealed the Eels had been beaten by a team that had, for a sustained period, engaged in conduct that breached the salary cap, I remember feeling very angry, then hollow, then disappointed and then ripped-off.
How ironic that less than a decade later it would be my club that would be embroiled in a salary cap saga of its own and a scandal, which was arguably worse than what the Storm had done all those years ago.
I’m not sure when my feelings about Smith started to change or when it was that I grew up and started to ‘forgive’ the Storm.
I think a big part of it has been that over the last couple of years, the Storm have started to change how they play footy. At one point (and rightly so), the Storm were accused of playing boring, robotic, structured footy. Some people still throw that accusation at them.
Over the last couple of seasons though we have seen that change and it has been an absolute pleasure to watch players like Josh Addo-Carr, Suliasi Vunivalu, Will Chambers, Tohu Harris, Felise Kaufusi and Jordan McLean develop into exceptionally exciting players. When the Storm’s attack is ‘on’, there has been no better team to watch in the competition over a sustained period.
Additionally, we’ve seen plenty of new faces coming through the ranks and the next generation of players which will lead the Storm when the likes of Smith and Slater retire like Ryley Jacks, Brandon Smith, Cameron Munster and Brodie Croft.
While all this change has taken place, there have been a couple of constants and Smith has been one of them.
With the news this week that Cameron has decided to retire from representative football immediately, it has given me the opportunity to reflect on just how lucky we have been to watch a player of his calibre represent us at international level over such a considerable period of time.
Perhaps this is something we have taken for granted as footy fans, especially since we’ve also had the chance to watch the likes of Darren Lockyer, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston at the same time.
I’m not sure I will ever see a player quite like Cameron again.
The big joke about Cameron when he first came onto the scene was that he was the footy player that looked like an accountant.
But while he may not look like a traditional footy player, it is traits like his incredible attention to detail, his understanding and reading of a footy game, and his smarts which have seen him rise above the rest.
Consider how little footy Cameron has missed over his career. It is no coincidence. He is an extremely clever player, who is always a couple of plays ahead of all the others on the field.
When he becomes the first player in rugby league history to reach 400 career games, it will be an exceptionally significant milestone and a milestone which is fitting for a man whose achievements in the game may never be repeated.
I had the opportunity to meet Cameron last year at the Rugby League Players Association Awards.
Unfortunately, it happened to be the week after the Storm had beaten the Eels in week one of the finals series.
After I introduced myself and mentioned casually that I was an Eels fan, he apologised. I laughed and then took the opportunity to thank him for everything he has contributed to our game – both on and off the field.
When I am old and grey (and still waiting for that Parramatta premiership), I will be able to tell the younger humans in my life about how I had the opportunity to watch Cameron Smith – one of the greatest of all time in a similar way to how my dad tells me about the likes of Ray Price and Peter Sterling.
Holden State of Origin in 2018 will look remarkably different without Cameron – the Maroons game plan and attack have been centred around him for the best part of a decade. Who will replace him? Will it be Andrew McCullough or Jake Friend? Or someone else?
There are plenty of questions but the biggest of all is whether NSW finally take advantage of a team that for the first time in over a decade will not include the likes of Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Smith?
This might just be the first time in Origin history that the NSW women and men will claim victory in the same year.
As for players like Cameron, JT, Slater, Inglis and Cronk we absolutely need to cherish them.