Smith goes off-script as final bow beckons

Two weeks from the rugby league season, Hamlet Prince of Broadbeach continues to waver. To be or not to be a footie player? Is that the question for Cameron Smith?

In case you’d given up waiting, the NRL GOAT has not retired yet. Nor has he not-not retired. He simply has not answered the phone. He has not made an announcement. He has not turned up to training, for he has not signed a contract. It’s possible he has not even decided.

Exit pursued by bare minimum of words.Credit:

One day he is spotted dozing off like any Gold Coast retiree, in thongs and sunnies, to sleep, perchance to dream. The next, he has seen Tom Brady win a Super Bowl at 43 and is pondering a Steeden like Yorick’s skull. Or is he just messing with us, having an infinite jest at the league world’s expense? If brevity is the soul of wit, Smith is taking his brevity to a hilarious extreme.

All this absence comes as a glaring counterpoint to a career marked by relentless action. Smith has played in the most club games (430), the most Origin games (42), scored the most points (2810), recorded the most wins for a club (310), made the most tackles (16,917), and so many more mosts, perhaps the immensity of doing all that has overwhelmed him. After all that, the one thing the future Immortal can’t seem to do is the decidedly mortal act of calling time.

Those, as they say, who are ‘close to Smith’ (although if the current limbo establishes anything, it’s that nobody is close, or close enough) speculate he is genuinely paralysed by indecision. He listens to many, speaks to few. If he couldn’t pick up the phone when Mal Meninga called from the Titans, perhaps it’s got to the stage, finally, where Smith has the yips.

Others, with even less claim to be close, have insinuated he is relishing the drama and is behaving, at the very least, selfishly by not telling the world he is not playing. He owes it to the game, or if not to the game then to the three clubs (Storm, Broncos, Titans) who have left their phones on every night since October in hopes of a call.

Cameron Smith and the Melbourne Storm with the premiership trophy.Credit:Getty

Does Smith owe anyone anything? Or have his achievements earned him the right to be morally debt-free? In these times when every utterance has to be micromanaged to the syllable and timed for maximum commercial effect, isn’t there something just a little bit beautiful in a player of this stature simply erasing himself? By making retirement an omission rather than a grand production, can Smith be said to be making a new kind of statement, one that is golden in its silence? Is there a method to this madness?

For 99.9 per cent of people who play sport, retirement is not an action but its absence. An injury happens, the rehab doesn’t fix it, the player eventually bows to reality. Or the player does want to go on, but an offer isn’t forthcoming. There’s no need for an announcement because nobody is waiting for one. They simply move on to something else. One day they were running through brick walls; the next, as Thom Yorke from Radiohead sang, they walk through walls, the moment’s already passed, they’re not here. On this reading, Smith’s inaction is a mute tribute to everyone who has no claim to the centre of attention – pretty much everyone, that is. It’s kind of sweet.

The world we live in, however, would deny Smith the chance to go out the way he wants – that is, to go out without going out. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting finale than he had, winning a grand final in his last game. But that’s not for us to decide, is it? The best sportspeople are usually obsessive, and obsessives keep doing something until it’s not fun any more. They have trouble with perseveration – they can’t stop when they’re unhappy, and they can’t stop when they’re happy either. The stimulus they crave is success, and the hardest thing of all is to walk away on that high.

Here’s my theory, from a person not only not close to Smith but a solid 1000 kilometres away. He wants to watch some rugby league and see if he craves it. He doesn’t know yet how it’s going to affect him. If the desire to play is overpowering, he will seek a contract this year or next. It could be as simple as that. Smith might actually be shocking everyone and catching them by surprise through being absolutely, 100 per cent, honest. To his own self he is being true.

If anyone can rewrite the rules, it’s Smith. What is the most objectionable retirement formula? The one that is announced months in advance, a tactical withdrawal to buy time, the one that Eddie McGuire tried (and failed) to achieve at Collingwood Football Club. Retirement as an act of manipulation is just control-freakery of another sort. Perhaps Smith is wanting to exert that last piece of control through doing nothing.

What you’d hate to think is that such a great player is withholding his retirement announcement as an up-yours to his perceived enemies. Many of the greats end up embittered because they feel they have done enough to place themselves beyond criticism and are disappointed to discover they can’t bend reality to their will. Smith has borne his share of slings and arrows, as you would expect from someone on such a pedestal. It’s easy for us on the outside to say he ought to shrug it off. It’s not so easy on the inside. It would be a pity if this was motivating his in/action now.

But we still don’t know, because he hasn’t said. Sadly, he’s creating just the kind of sideshow he might have hoped to avoid. The world hates a vacuum, and rushes to fill it. The rugby league world is filling the Smith vacuum with every kind of rumour and the usual Twitter toe-jam. He’s been sighted watching the Titans training! He was at a corporate event for the Broncos and his mere presence jolted the corpse to life! All we need now is a sighting at Portsea and Cameron Smith will beat Harold Holt back to Melbourne.

His silence, his deliberate evasion of attention, is interpreted as attention-seeking. That’s surely not what he wants. But he can’t say it isn’t of his own making. He’s put himself in a bit of a trap here, the poor guy; after winning everything, just now it seems like winning is the one thing he can’t do. He is probably just following his conscience; but conscience doth make cowards of us all.

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