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If there was one word you wouldn’t use to describe Cameron Smith, it would be “flashy”.
Across more than 400 games for first grade rugby league, he seemed anything but flashy.
Tough, cunning, deceptive, manipulative, determined, persistent. All applicable.
Rarely did he run sides to death. He didn’t need to. His game was based on guile, precision and guiding his team around the park.
He made his tackles with a minimum of fuss, ran when presented, but often he used the threat of his running game to buy his teammates time.
Jack Gibson once described Peter Sterling as “quick between the ears” given the Parramatta number seven’s lack of pace.
Smith is probably the only player since to truly be fit to wear that crown.
He came into the game when hookers played 80 minutes, made a bucket of tackles and simply distributed the ball.
The best at the time was Danny Buderus. In many ways, Buderus was the Cameron Smith prototype.
Tough, rugged, but a frustrated halfback in his younger years turned number nine. He didn’t kick much and didn’t need to, given his number seven was future immortal Andrew Johns.
His connection with Johns was one of the things that made him special. He always knew when Johns needed the ball and where he needed it.
That’s not to downplay the skill and ability of Buderus who won everything there was to win during his career.
But Smith took what Buderus was doing for hookers and took it to the next level.
He roamed from dummy-half, engaging markers and A defenders like a halfback. He kicked 40/20s and grubbered on the goal line. He didn’t try to shatter ball carriers with bone crunching hits but averaged more than 30 tackles per game his entire career.
His connections with Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater made the Storm an unstoppable force, but even with them gone he masterminded a premiership in his final season.
But rarely does greatness follow greatness.
It’s rare in world sport for one legend to replace another unless they are purchased from another club.
The Green Bay Packers struck gold when they drafted Aaron Rodgers to follow the gunslinging 16 seasons of Brett Favre at quarterback. But that transition was marked by pain, politics and a falling out that took over a decade to repair.
The transition for Melbourne was decidedly smoother with Smith retiring and welcoming his successor, Harry Grant, into the role.
And just like the Packers, they struck gold with their bright eyed and bushy tailed understudy who learned their craft alongside the grizzled veteran.
It just seems unfair though, that Grant steps into the 430 game boots of Smith and then adds his own design to the way the Storm play.
Melbourne are less methodical than the 2000s and early 2010s. Part of that is due to how the game has evolved. But it’s also due to a change in personnel.
Out are Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Smith. Even guys like Jeremy Smith, Ryan Hoffman, Ryan Hinchcliffe and Dallas Johnson means Melbourne’s style had to change.
The Storm still like hardworkers, but they also look to massive units like Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica to get them rolling forward, supported by a skillful prop in Christian Welch.
Where Hinchcliffe used to come off the bench to either spell Smith or play as a roving lock, now Brandon Smith is unleashed like you’re releasing a Mustang on the Nurburgring with The Stig behind the wheel, telling him he can thrash this car as hard as he likes.
Cameron Munster creates chaos, energy and match winning skills while Jahrome Hughes proves sometimes you can take a fullback and turn him into a premiership winning halfback.
Harry Grant is just the perfect player at the perfect time.
Even two years older, he probably wouldn’t have remained at the Storm, biding his time behind Smith. As Brandon showed, sometimes a starting role is more important than anything else.
Grant is essentially the amalgamation of the two other types of hookers that succeed in the NRL.
There are your speedy hookers out of dummy half like Damien Cook who terrorise middle forwards and that opens up their halves to play with more time.
Or there are your craftier hookers who look to probe around the ruck and isolate their big men onto smaller men with the occasional run like Api Koroisau.
Or there is Grant, who is equally at home exploring from dummy half as he is gunning it through the middle as soon as he is given half a sniff.
Following Cameron Smith could have proven overwhelming. The size of the gap he left was immense and plenty of other clubs have failed to fill a similar void.
Parramatta’s highlights packages still feature Peter Sterling. The Raiders have only ever been successful with Ricky Stuart at the club. Newcastle, now 15 years post the Andrew Johns era, are learning what that is like.
But Melbourne don’t have to worry about that.
It’s a fool who writes off Melbourne at any point of the year. And Craig Bellamy has proven it was foolish to write them off when Cameron Smith retired.
It feels like the Storm have replaced their T-800 with a T-1000. Like they have swapped out the living tissue over a metal endoskeleton with mimetic polyalloy.
Grant is the hooker for now. Capable of running 70 metres a game while also topping the charts with 16 try assists. He averages more metres than Damien Cook and has doubled his try assist count.
He more than doubles Koroisau’s average metres and has supplied three more try assists in three fewer games.
It feels like Cameron Smith spent his entire career learning, adapting and re-learning the best ways to play the game, to take apart opponents.
But Harry Grant feels something like a cheat code. Like he downloaded all of the information Smith had collated and then applied it to the V’landysball era better than any other hooker.