BY CURTIS WOODWARD
Rugby league has never been very good at celebrating individual milestones – compared to other codes we are a long way behind. Next week, however, we have the chance to bask in the legendary careers of two of the most important players of the modern era.
Some players are happy with 50 matches.
Many are content just to be called an NRL player at least once.
But 700 games?
Take a bow Cameron Smith and Benji Marshall.
Think about that. Next weekend, Smith will run out for his 400th first grade rugby league game. Benji ticks off game 300. Amazing. Incredible. Outstanding.
What a journey on two very different roads.
They didn’t debut that far apart.
Back then, Andrew Johns, Darren Lockyer and Brad Fittler sold newspapers.
Smith debuted in 2002 as a last-minute replacement at halfback. Melbourne were towelled up by Canterbury. Nobody thought much of his first game.
Benji’s debut for Wests Tigers seemingly came from far-right of right field.
On a sunny 2003 afternoon at Campbelltown, Coach Tim Sheens sprung a selection shock by sliding a skinny little 18-year-old kid from Whakatane onto his bench to play a hardened Newcastle outfit that boasted Matt Gidley, Josh Perry, Steve Simpson, Kurt Gidley and Matt Parsons.
Wests won 52-12.
Just like that… shiny disco balls.
It was now cool to be a Wests Tigers fan.
Sheens’ team very quickly became the most exciting rugby league side on the planet. Cooler than the other side of a pillow. They were ‘must watch’. Neutral fans, with no interest in watching any other time, would sink themselves into their couch every weekend to watch Benji’s Wests Tigers.
Suddenly, kids were ripping down their posters of Lockyer and Johns and replacing them with the hot-stepping Kiwi.
Right across the land, kids would Benji-step their way to school on Monday morning whether they supported Wests Tigers, Parramatta or Canterbury.
Benji-mania exploded out of nowhere.
A rock star.
Wests Tigers shot into the stratosphere.
All the while, Cameron Smith kept improving. Refining. Toiling.
As Benji flick-passed Wests Tigers to a remarkable premiership, Smith won the Storm Player of the Year. Melbourne finished 2005 a contender but not quite there.
Smith then won the Dally M in 2006.
The Storm era had begun.
As Smith evolved to be the cornerstone of Australian and Queensland outfits, Wests Tigers became easy to read. That’s hard to explain. They were still a lethal offensive outfit but they were very good at beating themselves too.
The annual highlight reel still starred Benji but it wasn’t winning them games of football on a consistent basis. Smith’s Storm kept churning them out. Like a machine. Over and over.
Benji’s star shined so bright that it had to explode.
Then the news he was trying rugby union.
He’d never play against Wests Tigers but when his flirtation with the Auckland Blues didn’t work out, he was back in the NRL in a St George Illawarra Dragons jersey. Then he went to Brisbane.
Nobody ever thought he’d be back at Wests Tigers or passing 300 games.
The one constant in rugby league has been Smith.
Did anyone ever think, that on the same weekend, we’d be celebrating Smith and Marshall? 700 premiership games, no less?
In round 17, Cameron Smith will run out onto AAMI Park for 400.
Benji at Parramatta for 300.
These are truly legendary players.
Icons we’ll be talking about forever.
We are lucky to have them.