Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith played the final two months of the season – including the NRL grand final – with the aid of painkilling injections because of a chronic shoulder injury.
Smith suffered the grade-two injury to his AC joint of his left shoulder while diving over for a try in the 26-12 win over Newcastle on the Sunshine Coast in round 12.
He missed three matches but finished out the season, despite injuring the shoulder as the Storm made their charge towards the premiership.
Typical of the Storm, the true nature of the injury was kept secret. It was so severe that Smith couldn’t swing a golf club – but the 37-year-old was still determined enough to lead his team to its third premiership in eight years.
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Storm football manager Frank Ponissi confirmed the severity of the injury when contacted on Monday as the players watched a replay of the 26-20 grand final win over the Panthers.
“He had to get needled every game to play out the season,” Ponissi said. “He even had to get needled at times so he could train. The injury was more annoying than anything, but it never really had the chance to heal. He kept whacking it in games and it lingered throughout the rest of the season. He’s been carrying it for a while.”
The ironic twist to the injury is Smith injured it while in pursuit of coach Craig Bellamy’s try-scoring record of 46 from his playing days with Canberra.
When Bellamy was presenting Smith with his jumper before his 400th match last year, he alerted his captain to the fact he had scored more tries than him. Smith was two behind him with 44 career tries at the time and vowed to pass his coach before he retired.
“He should never have mentioned it to me,” Smith has said.
Smith equalled Bellamy’s record against the Knights and went one better than him with a try against the Wests Tigers. He also scored a definitive try seconds before halftime in the grand final on Sunday night.
A major factor in Smith’s record-breaking longevity was his ability to avoid injury. He suffered a severely corked leg in the Storm’s 2006 grand final loss to the Broncos and, 14 years later, was not going to allow another injury to stop him taking the field in what may prove to be his final match.
When contacted a month ago and asked what leisure activities he was pursuing at the Storm’s Sunshine Coast resort, Smith revealed the injury prevented him playing golf. A left-hander, Smith said his golf swing aggravated the niggling pain.
So, a man who couldn’t play the gentleman’s game of golf had enough resolve to drive his team to a premiership in sport’s most brutal calling. Bellamy was much relieved following the Storm’s victory over Parramatta in the first week of the finals, revealing Smith needed the week’s break to reduce the inflammation in his shoulder.
“These guys are gutsy,” Bellamy texted in August.
None more so than his 37-year-old captain.
The NRL elected on Monday to not pursue Smith’s ‘exciting finish’ quip to referee Gerard Sutton but one question still remains unanswered: was the 2020 season his last?
After the match, Smith gave no indication he would retire.
“Cameron, we can’t let you go, we’ve got to ask you the question,” he was asked as the Storm’s post-match media conference was drawing to a close. “Have you got an announcement for us?”
Brandon Smith makes his post-match intentions clear and also urges captain Cameron Smith not to retire.
Smith deflected: “I’ve got nothing [to announce]. Get on the Storm in 2021”.
The Storm remained coy about when an announcement about his future will be made although it is understood Smith will meet with manager Isaac Moses to make a decision. There has been no deadline set and Storm boss Dave Donaghy said the club would give Smith the time to make his decision.
The next setting for a potential announcement from Smith will be Storm’s presentation dinner on Tuesday night.
“Cameron in my opinion is the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Donaghy told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.
“Nobody wanted to win more than him on Sunday night. The history books will show what impact he has had on rugby league, on and off the field. If the game had more Cameron Smiths, rugby league would be an even better product than what it is.
“We need to be celebrating those guys – they’re amazing athletes on the field but obviously do the right thing off it. He’s an incredible leader and mentor and a terrific ambassador for our club and game.”