Wayne Smith insists the decision to insist his son Cameron played in the halves and not at hooker in his earliest years as a junior has played a major role in creating the all-round great footballer we see today.
Smith will line up for the Melbourne Storm against the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night in his joint-testimonial match with Johnathan Thurston as an acknowledged legend of the game.
NRL.com has spoken to Wayne, who played for Brisbane Easts as a hooker and coached Cameron in his junior days at Logan Brothers, about the earliest years of his son’s development to find out what shaped the Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos captain.
Wayne said Cameron initially mainly played five-eighth for his club side at Logan Brothers, and halfback for his school team.
That was by design, not by chance.
“When we got a half-decent six who had a bit of pace at club level, Cam jumped into lock, but he didn’t go into hooker until he was around 15 and there’s a reason for that,” Wayne told NRL.com.
“I had played hooker in the old days in the Brisbane comp and people said to me ‘I guess you want Cameron to be a hooker like you’ and I said ‘no’.
“In his formative years at least I didn’t want him just chucking the ball to someone, so I encouraged him to play in the halves.
“It was a conscious decision by me because I wanted him to play some football with the ball in his hands and not just be at dummy half, and you see that at Melbourne now where they use him at second receiver a lot.
“That time in the halves is why he reads the game so well now as a hooker and why when he is coming up behind the ruck he is counting heads and looking for fatigued and injured players.”
Smith’s ability to read play can be traced back to another essential component of his youthful development.
“When he was seven, eight and nine I would be coaching older age groups and when he was finished his own training Cam would come over and join in my sessions,” Wayne recalled.
“He would be listening to terminology and to me talk about breaking down field position and how to get from A to B. He probably didn’t have the skill at that stage to do it, but he understood it.
“One of Cam’s great strengths, and it would have been the same for the Johns boys, was that he just loved playing footy. He’d play every day if his body allowed him to.”
NRL.com read to Wayne what Johnathan Thurston said this week about Cameron Smith being able to think seven, eight and nine sets of six ahead and his ability to turn the momentum of a game in the blink of an eye.
“It makes me think of the age old saying ‘you can’t put in what God leaves out’. You either have it or you don’t,” Wayne said.
“It is just an awareness thing. Cam is a real student of the game and gets into the mind of the other team and identifies where they are at in their own mental state and what they are feeling.”
Wayne said his son pinpoints what the other side would least like their opposition to do.
“Once he identifies what that is he thinks ‘I’ll do that’,” he said.
Smith’s former Storm teammate Matt Geyer came up with the classic line that Cameron was “a footballer in an accountant’s body”. Not a natural athlete and not that fast, but quick between the ears.
Wayne recalled a fascinating conversation with Wayne Bennett when his son was in discussions with the Broncos about why that speed between the ears was more important.
“When we spoke with Wayne Bennett before Cam signed with Melbourne, he said to Cam ‘where do you see your weak points?’,” Wayne said.
“Cam said ‘I’m not very fast’. Wayne said to him ‘you are fast enough, and if we need you faster we’ll make you faster’.
“Wayne identified there and then that his physical stature was less of a consequence to him than the fact he knew his way around a footy field.”
So why did Cameron sign with the Storm and not the Broncos?
“Cam signed with Melbourne because the Broncos had Luke Priddis and he was 23 and the NSW hooker,” Wayne said.
“All things being equal Priddis had another eight years there and they had another good young guy coming through in Mick Ryan. We wanted Cam to have a pathway to the NRL within a reasonable time span of five years.
“We wanted him to sign with a club where he could stay at home and play with a feeder club that was in Brisbane, and Melbourne had Norths Devils.
“If Norths Devils weren’t there he would have probably signed with the Broncos, but we didn’t want him to get lost in the system as so many kids do when they leave home.”
He certainly didn’t get lost. Cameron had found his way to hooker by that stage and Wayne also explained how that occurred.
“One of the coaches he had for the South Coast primary side came and coached Cam at Logan Brothers in the under 15s and he said to him ‘there aren’t many good hookers running around and I reckon if you play hooker you are a show for Queensland Schoolboys’,” Wayne said.
“He made that team on the bench and other rep sides as a hooker, but later missed out on the Queensland under 17 side.
“Cameron was devastated to the point of being inconsolable.
“I said to Cam after he played his first Origin game in 2003, ‘it makes missing out on the Queensland under 17 side pale into insignificance’ and he said ‘yes, but I still should have made the team’.
“That says to me that he will never let anyone have the opportunity to say he doesn’t deserve to be there. That is what drove him from then on.”
Wayne said the other thing that drives his son is the determination to never let anyone down on the field or off it, and he has a story for that too.
“When he was young he was being cheeky and I said to him ‘I am really disappointed in you Cam’, and he went to his room and was inconsolable,” Wayne recalled.
“The thought that he’d let me or his mum down ate away at him. He was showing that character trait even back then.”