The Storm Within – But What a Career!

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER reviews the autobiography of CAMERON SMITH, who has been the world’s outstanding Rugby League player and team captain over the last 15 years.

The Storm Within – The Autobiography of a Legend Cameron Smith and Andrew Webster

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (355pp)

ISBN: 978 1 76052 511 8

CAMERON SMITH is a Rugby League phenomenon. Born in Brisbane in 1983, he made his debut for Melbourne Storm as a teenager in 2002. Now, eighteen years later, having broken the record for NRL appearances, all of them for Melbourne Storm, Smith has still not revealed whether he will play on next season, despite the fact that his current Storm contract expired at the end of 2020. Throughout his extraordinary career Smith has been a very private individual, deliberately going out of his way to avoid having a high media profile, although his success over the years has meant that considerable media scrutiny has been inevitable.

So the publication of an autobiography by such a leading player is undoubtedly a major milestone. He has written this book with the help of Sydney Morning Herald’s Rugby League journalist Andrew Webster, but Smith’s values, character and personality speak to us with every page we turn.

Having said that, this is very much a book about Smith’s life in Rugby League, but not beyond it. You won’t read anything about politics, for example, and Smith doesn’t tell us anything about the rest of his life outside Rugby League. Don’t expect to read about his hobbies, if he has any, or his views on sport, the environment and culture, other than the fact that he does confess to being a fan of the Hawthorn AFL club in Melbourne.

And don’t expect to read too many funny stories about his team-mates, which are a feature of many other Rugby League autobiographies. Inevitably his status as the captain of Melbourne Storm for 15 years from 2006 – the club that so many Sydney Rugby League fans love to hate – means that Smith has attracted much criticism during his career, the vast majority of it entirely unjustified.

You might think that he would be ready to get his own back on some of his critics. But in that case, you would be entirely wrong. The only prominent individual who comes in for even minor criticism in the book is David Gallop, the former Chief Executive of the NRL, who was the man who took away the Premierships that had been won by the Storm under Smith’s captaincy in 2007 and 2009 and made the club play for no points in the 2010 season. That was due to the uncovering of the infamous salary cap scandal. But Smith accuses Gallop of having imposed the penalties before undertaking a forensic investigation into the details of the cap breach.

“My anger is mainly directed at the NRL for the penalties they handed down, and the way the whole matter was handled,” writes Smith.

“And for that I blame David Gallop. He was the one I was most disappointed in because of the way it all unfolded.

“By punishing us before undertaking a thorough investigation, Gallop put the players in a position they should never have been in. It allowed the media to give the public the idea that we had knowledge of what happened. Even though we were cleared of knowing about the cheating that went on, we were hung out to dry by the boss of the game, given no opportunity to defend ourselves and no support during the intense backlash that followed.”

Smith also observes that the three clubs involved in salary cap breaches since the Storm were handed their punishment – Manly, Parramatta and Cronulla – were each investigated for several months before any penalties were handed out, and the penalties were much less severe than the one given to the Storm.

Strangely, the salary cap trauma probably sealed the Storm’s position in the state of Victoria, which has always been a one-eyed Aussie Rules state, as Victorians rallied to defend their club from what most of them believed was an excessive punishment that was motivated by malice by administrators who have never had any love for a club outside the Sydney heartland.

And that reaction was helped by the dignified way that Smith, his coach Craig Bellamy and the Storm players reacted to their punishment when many in Sydney probably believed that the punishment would destroy the club.

But there is far more in this book than simply going over old ground in relation to the salary cap scandal. As we might expect, Smith gives insights into many aspects of Rugby League, discussing, for example, how he has learnt to read the game so well and knowing which is the most appropriate play to choose during a game. And he also discusses the culture and work ethic that is at the heart of Melbourne Storm’s success that sets them apart from other NRL clubs.

A lot of that is down to the coaching of Craig Bellamy, the man who has driven the Storm since his appointment in 2003, shortly after Smith’s arrival at the club. Smith’s admiration for Bellamy is obvious, not just because of the success that Bellamy has enjoyed while coaching the Storm, but also because of the relationship the coach has built with his players and his willingness to stand up for them.

For example, during the finals campaign of the 2008 NRL season Bellamy was fined $50,000 by the NRL for making scathing remarks about the NRL’s decision to suspend Smith for a controversial “grapple tackle” on Brisbane’s Sam Thaiday. Bellamy claimed that the administration was corrupt for denying Smith the chance to play for the rest of the season, particularly in the Grand Final against Manly. He questioned the NRL’s integrity in opting to sideline Smith and not others who were guilty of committing similar tackles.

Smith clearly still feels angry about his suspension, particularly as Thaiday wasn’t even aware that he had been the victim of a grapple tackle. But Smith was suspended for two matches, which would conveniently rule him out of the preliminary final and the Grand Final if the Storm reached that stage. They did indeed reach the Grand Final, but without Smith leading them on the pitch, they were hammered 40-0 by Manly.

But perhaps the most serious incident in Smith’s career, and the one for which he took the most flak from the critics and opposing fans, was for his reaction to an event in 2014.

“I can remember most things that have happened in almost every game of footy I’ve ever played,” writes Smith.

“Scores, details, how tries came about and how they didn’t.

“There’s only one thing, though, that I recall from the Round 3 match between the Storm and Newcastle at AAMI Park on Monday, 24 March 2014, and that is the incident involving Newcastle Knights forward Alex McKinnon.

“This is the hardest chapter of the book for me to write, because of the injury that Alex suffered and the resulting impact it had on his life. It was a tragic accident and a lot of the anger about what happened was directed at the Melbourne Storm and at me.”

McKinnon had broken a bone in his neck, causing paralysis, but that wasn’t immediately clear to Smith, who questioned the referee about the penalty he had awarded for a dangerous tackle.

Subsequently the sad truth about the impact of the tackle became apparent, but over a year later the Channel 9 programme ’60 minutes’ ran a story on Alex that seemed to put Smith in the dock as a heartless individual who had never contacted Alex to say he was sorry for what happened. But the makers of the programme had never contacted Smith to get his version of events.

Inevitably the allegations in the Channel 9 programme created great hostility towards Smith, which also affected his family and caused him to withdraw his cooperation for a time from Channel 9, which is the major terrestrial broadcaster of the NRL. Eventually that was resolved, but for a long time it left a nasty taste in Smith’s mouth.

Inevitably, given his iconic status, there have been other controversies in Smith’s career, including when the NRL’s gift of a special ring to his wife after his 400th NRL game, the status of his relationship with Cooper Cronk and the unfounded rumours that he was having an affair with a female Rugby League broadcaster.

This book has allowed Smith to give his side of his own story. Of course, the big question seeking an answer is whether he has decided to retire from the game after playing a total of 532 matches for his club and representative sides while having scored 3,004 points.

The final chapter is entitled ‘Full Time’, which suggests that he might have retired. But it doesn’t confirm it, and no one can be sure whether we will see him on a Rugby League pitch in 2021, whether for the Storm or for any other club. No doubt we’ll find out soon.

Unlike most Rugby League biographies, ‘The Storm Within’ has an excellent index and a superb statistical section compiled by Aussie statistician David Middleton.

It would be a worthy book to read, especially during the current lockdown.

This article was first published in this week’s edition of League Express, which is available both online and in print. To subscribe, click here for more details.