Andrew Steel asks whether a Gold Coast move for Cameron Smith could give him a Tom Brady fairytale finish against the odds – but does he even need one?
The former Melbourne Storm captain could echo the coda of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback if he chooses to play on – but his legacy is more than already assured
Off-season drama and speculation isn’t anything particularly new to Rugby League, particularly as the first kick of the new campaign approaches. But then again, it isn’t every season that Cameron Smith’s future career sits at a crossroads.
The Storm hooker, at thirty-seven, is thought to have brought down the curtain on his career in Victoria, having led them to a fourth premiership title of the NRL era; a sixth Grand Final triumph to be truthful, if we include their 2007 and 2009 crowns, which were later stripped for a salary cap breach.
But it may not yet be the final chapter to the veteran playmaker’s career, with the former Australia captain having kept his cards notably close to his chest. With a month until the 2021 season gets underway, Smith is yet to officially confirm his retirement. And as long as he stays quiet, rumours mount that he has one more go-around in him.
If he is to do so, it will be not with the Storm; they have effectively confirmed that they have planned for life without their talismanic skipper. Instead, speculation continues to suggest that he may link up with the Gold Coast Titans, after he moved to the local region with his family following October’s title-clinching win over Minor Premiers Penrith.
The Titans have previously denied having made contact with Smith, but the tantalising draw of another season from one of the game’s modern greats not only ensures that his future remains a hotly debated topic, but that further comparisons for the league’s all-time appearance record holder can be drawn against another sporting giant – and whether, like him, he could turn the coda of his career into another improbable triumph.
When Tom Brady announced he was trading Foxborough and the New England Patriots for Florida and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2020, shockwaves reverberated across the NFL. Arguably the game’s greatest quarterback, trading a Boston dynasty he built, was heading for a franchise that hadn’t sniffed the post-season for over a decade; it almost boggled the mind.
Fast-forward a year and, against the odds, the 43-year-old has led the Bucs to a second-ever Super Bowl, extending his own personal haul of showpiece triumphs to a record-breaking seven victories. It is a striking riposte to those who assumed he would simply fade into retirement down on the Gulf of Mexico and it’s another notch in a glittering career marked out by both its longevity and success rate.
Like Brady before he moved out of Massachusetts, Smith is a one-club man too, snapped up by the Storm from grade-level Norths Devils. That 2003 breakthrough, when he was handed the number nine for Queensland, was a harbinger of greater things; and for the better part of two decades, Smith has steered the sides he has played for to near-unparalleled success at domestic, state and international level.
And like Brady after he made the trip south to sunny Florida, Smith could now be set to break away for balmier, more moderate mid-ladder waters with Gold Coast. Like Tampa Bay, Justin Holbrook’s side has not troubled the upper echelons of a post-season playoff campaign for a decade; in fact, they’ve qualified once since 2011, which was a lone elimination final exit in 2016 against Brisbane.
So what is the lure? A myriad of complex reasons will lie under each decision, but it is hard to escape the looming shadow that they built their legacies under the auspices of a single coach; Bill Belichick joined with the Patriots as sixth-round draft pick Brady arrived from Michigan, while Craig Bellamy’s debut Storm season correlates with Smith’s 2003 breakthrough. Two decades down the line, both men are still in charge in New England and Victoria, with era-defining triumphs littered in their wake.
Yet even with half-a-dozen winners’ rings to their names, Belichick and Brady often hung around the other’s necks like the proverbial albatross in later seasons, the stick with which to beat each other as to whether they could be considered on their own individual merits. Some saw Brady’s switch to the Bucs as a tacit challenge; another MVP turn later, he has resoundingly answered the naysayers.
Smith has not suffered the same level of ill-informed hawkish dialogue as his counterpart, perhaps in part down to the fact that Rugby League has offered multiple levels on the national and international stage for him to prove an evergreen mastery of. Still, with no clear need for further justification to ascertain his legacy, is a final campaign with the Titans a chance for a shot at his detractors?
Doubtful, to put it mildly; Smith has never been shy of praise for not only his coach but the myriad of talented team-mates he has shared the field with over the years. It is unlikely that any urge to play on is motivated by a nagging sense of personal incompletion; few players have amassed as many domestic honours as him, on either side of the world, while his State of Origin record is unmatched.
But just picture the scene. A packed ANZ Stadium, freed from the restrictions of Covid-19-limited crowd numbers. The roar of 80,000 fans on a Sydney spring evening. On one side of the pitch, the light blue and gold strip of Gold Coast; at their centre, the beating heart of Cameron Smith, in one last Grand Final.
He has no need to play on for one last time, no need to prove anything to anyone – and yet, if he does, we can only dare to dream about what kind of last bow he could deliver.