Cameron Smith retires from rugby league after iconic 430-game career in NRL
A long-running saga over Smith’s future came to an end on Wednesday when the Melbourne Storm confirmed the news. Smith then spoke at a press conference, revealing that he’d only made the decision a week ago.
He said that his family and close friend Billy Slater, his long-time Storm teammate, had been among his few confidantes. He said that he’d “wrestled” with the retirement decision ever since winning last year’s grand final with Melbourne.
“That’s probably the thing that made it more difficult. The end of last year, winning the premiership, I still felt good within myself physically and mentally,” Smith, 37, said on Wednesday.
“I still felt like my form was good enough to play in the NRL. But at the end of the day, once I spent good quality time with my family up in Queensland, I knew that it was the right time to finish.”
Smith said that he hoped the next chapter of his life would “involve rugby league in some capacity”. The iconic Australia, Queensland and Melbourne captain has previously baulked at coaching but has dabbled in media work and suggested that it might be of interest as his next challenge.
Smith played 430 NRL games and won three premierships for Melbourne, becoming the competition’s all-time leading point-scorer (2,786). He also played 56 Tests for Australia and 42 State of Origin matches for Queensland, as a mainstay of the Maroons dynasty that won 11 series in 12 years. He captained Rugby League World Cup wins in 2013 and 2017, before retiring from representative football in 2018.
His retirement announcement followed the Wednesday unveiling of a Smith statue at AAMI Park, the Storm’s home ground, as well as a bronze model of fellow Melbourne icon Slater.
He said that he’d decided a trip back to Melbourne, having relocated to Queensland with his family, was the perfect time to make his announcement.
“This is were I and Billy both started our career, right here at Olympic Park, 2002,” Smith said. “This is where I wanted to officially end it as well and I had the opportunity to stand next to my good friend Billy.”
Slater said of Smith: “We’re great mates, first and foremost, but everything I did on the football field, this bloke was next to me.
“I spoke about how influential he was in our team and all teams that we were in, but like no other, he helped me play good.”
There was some speculation that Smith might sign a late contract with either the Brisbane Broncos or Gold Coast Titans for this season, but that has come to nothing. He retires as a one-club player, something that he said was a key factor; having dreamed of remaining so ever since being a Storm rookie nearly two decades ago.
“That was probably one of the main considerations, really,” Smith said.
“Given the amount of time I’ve spent here and what I’ve tried to build with guys like Billy and Cooper [Cronk] and Ryan Hoffman and Jesse Bromwich and Ryan Hinchcliffe, all these guys have put a lot of effort into growing the sport of rugby league but growing the organisation of Melbourne Storm to what it is today.
“That was a major factor, of remaining a one-club player.”
Smith made the hooker position his own in a 19-season first grade career. He will undoubtedly be inducted as a rugby league Immortal once the five-year waiting period is complete; beginning with his retirement.
Smith was a dual Dally M Medallist, a dual Golden Boot winner and an eight-time Dally M Hooker of the Year. He was also a four-time winner of the Wally Lewis Medal, as man of the Origin series, a four-time Dally M Representative Player of the Year and a five-time Dally M Captain of the Year.
Smith had played his cards extremely close to his chest with his retirement announcement. Even his long-time Storm coach, Craig Bellamy, said on Wednesday morning that he had no idea what Smith had decided for his future and had recently given up asking.
“I tried that a couple of times last year and got a fairly icy response, so I haven’t brought it up again,” Bellamy told SEN radio.
Bellamy later joined Smith at his retirement press conference, reiterating that he’d left his captain to make up his own mind. He branded Smith the greatest player he’d seen in rugby league.
“I think he’s obviously the greatest player that I’ve ever seen,” Bellamy said.
“His record, well over 400 games … he’s played nearly 100 rep games for Queensland and Australia in that time and with the success that he’s had as a captain as well, it’s quite remarkable. That hasn’t been done in the game before and I can’t see it happening again.
“It’s hard to describe his effect on our club and his effect on the game. Probably the biggest thing for me is how long he’s done it for. We’ve had great players who’ve contributed heavily to the quality of our game but to do it near on 20 years, that’s unparalleled.
“I’d have no hesitation in my opinion that he’s the best player the game’s ever seen.”
Melbourne begin their season on Thursday, at home against South Sydney. The Storm still have two of the NRL’s best hookers on their books despite Smith’s exit: Queensland Origin star Harry Grant and New Zealand Test rake Brandon Smith.
Cameron Smith’s career was not without controversy.
He was one of the faces of the Storm club through its 2010 salary cap scandal, which resulted in their 2007 and 2009 premierships being stripped. As such, Smith has won five NRL grand finals but can count only three officials titles.
Smith also became a lightning rod for criticism of the Melbourne Storm’s playing style, after the club pioneered wrestling techniques in tackles.
There were also claims of Smith falling out with long-time teammate Cronk after the halfback moved to the Sydney Roosters, subsequently winning two more premierships with the rival club.
His drawn-out decision over whether or not to retire drew claims of selfishness, though it is now clear that Smith was genuinely torn about the call; and Melbourne had already moved on before the decision became official.
Yet all criticism is dwarfed by mighty achievements. Immortal Andrew Johns counts Smith the greatest player he’s ever seen, as do many other legends of the game.
Despite his ‘accountant’ body, Smith was unrivalled at controlling the rhythm of a game from No.9, was an immaculate defender and an elite goal-kicker. About the only major honour that he did not win was a Clive Churchill Medal, as man of the match in a grand final.
His exit was hailed by ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys, who noted the incredible span of his career for younger fans.
“Cameron is an undisputed legend of our sport and his records may never be broken,” V’landys said.
“Year after year, Cameron defied age and science to remain arguably the best player in the competition.
“In many ways, today is an historic moment for our game. So many of our young fans have never witnessed an NRL season without Cameron Smith. His contribution to the game will last generations.
“Off the field, Cameron was a role model for rugby league who did his club, state and nation proud. I wish he and his family the very best for the next chapters of their lives and I hope he can continue to be involved in rugby league.”