The first week of the finals has ended and one of the highlights for me was watching Cameron Smith set a new record for the number of NRL games played. Smith's 356th game was typical of so many others he has played, he was right in the thick of it, leading his team to victory over the Eels under enormous pressure. I called Smith the greatest player to ever play rugby league in an article earlier this year and nothing has happened since to change my mind.
This year Smith has dominated the NRL season like none have done before. The only player I can remember going close was Jarryd Hayne in 2009 when he blew the game away leading up to the finals and all the way to the big show. As good as he was that year, Hayne wasn't at the top of his game for the whole year the way Smith has been this year. There have been others, like Andrew Johns, Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston who have had great runs of form, leading their teams to great victories and amazing all that saw them in action, but Cameron Smith has had a full year of unbelievable form.
After losing last year's grand final, the Storm bounced back with a whole lot of additional motivation. They have left no stone unturned, their professionalism and preparation have gone to a whole new level. You only had to listen to Smith after their hard-fought victory over the Eels, he said he was heading home for a cup of tea and biscuits before starting his recovery ahead of preparing for the next challenge in two weeks' time. He had a grin on his face as he said it, but you just knew he wasn't happy with the way they beat Parramatta and they'll be doing a whole lot of work to make sure their next performance is much better.
Smith is such a humble, down to earth guy, who is the ultimate professional. One thing you learn when you spend any amount of time with him is that he really loves the game. He has been in this Storm set-up since 2003 and has been guided by Craig Bellamy, who I rate one of the best coaches ever. He has had the fortune of playing alongside Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, who individually are two of the best to ever play in their positions. Smith's success has a lot of ingredients to it and there is a fair degree of luck involved in all those things aligning at the same time, at the one club. But one thing that you can be certain of is that no one in the NRL has worked harder at his game than Smith, and all his success is hard earned and well deserved.
In breaking Lockyer's record Smith has illustrated his incredible durability. His ability to stay relatively injury free while playing 80 minutes in one of the toughest, hardest working positions in the game is a testimony to his preparation. There is no fitter, harder-training player in the NRL.
When I was asked to put together my team of the year and select my player of the year, I had no hesitation in choosing Smith. Smith has been the stand-out performer across the competition and he will be recognised with the Dally M medal.
He is also my captain of the year, as he leads his teams brilliantly on and off the field. He is the perfect example of what it means to lead by example. I remember in the 2012 grand final, he knew the Bulldogs' favourite play was a face pass to a rampaging middle forward on tackle three. He made sure he was in front of that forward for almost every time they ran that play. It was an amazing effort and is typical of the way he knows what an opposition's strengths are. He leads his team to victory by making himself personally responsible for stopping those strengths.
Smith shows no sign of wanting to hang up the boots, but I guess a lot will depend on whether the Storm win the premiership this year and how well Australia goes in the World Cup. It could be a season for the ages for Smith, and you'd have to wonder how he could possibly top that. If the Storm do win this year, knowing what a competitor Smith is, I suspect winning back-to-back premierships will drive him on and into 2018.
See who else makes it into Noddy's team of the year.