NRL 2019: Why Melbourne captain Cameron Smith will never stop

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Back in 2004, when both Matt Geyer and Cameron Smith had far more hair than they have now, the pair found themselves stuck in the middle of hell.

They were somewhere near Echuca on the Murray River in northern Victoria and doing an SAS-style training camp at the insistence of coach Craig Bellamy, who had joined the club two years earlier.

In between gruelling runs through the bush, having had no sleep, eaten very little and being barked at by coaching staff, the players were doing a plank hold when Geyer looked over at Smith.

“You young blokes won’t have extended careers at this club,” Geyer said. “It’s too much training. You might have to move somewhere else if you want to prolong your career.”

The brutal regime that Bellamy introduced to the Melbourne club didn’t break players — it made them. It made them tougher and stronger and just downright stubborn, refusing to yield when other clubs pack it in.

The “young blokes” Geyer was referring to were Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Ryan Hoffman.

Slater finished his career last year having played 323 matches in the NRL. Hoffman played 359. Cronk, who will retire at the end of this year, sits on 364.

But it’s Smith, 36, who has outlasted all of them. On Saturday night, against the Sharks at AAMI Park, he will become the first player in history to play 400 first-grade matches.

Milestone man: Cameron Smith ahead of his 400th game.

Milestone man: Cameron Smith ahead of his 400th game.Credit:AAP

It’s a number that seemed unreachable not that long ago. The brutal nature of the modern game was supposed to shorten careers. Instead, the Spartan regime of Bellamy has done the opposite: it makes players keep going, well into their 30s.

“I still remember Matt Geyer saying that,” Smith tells the Herald. “When Craig first started, it was just an onslaught of work. Running, running, running. And if you weren’t running, you were in the gym. If you weren’t in the gym, you were out doing contact work. It was just an onslaught. It’s still an onslaught here — but they do it a little smarter now.

“It’s weird because you look back, from over a decade ago, and I’m still going, Coops is still going, Billy just finished up, Hoffy just finished up. And GI [Greg Inglis] just finished up, too. It’s funny thinking back then about them saying you may need to look elsewhere, that you won’t last. The flipside of it was that it’s worked for us. It's enabled us to play for as long as we have. To have four guys who have played over 300 matches come out of the one joint is unheard of.”

The ethos Bellamy has constructed in Melbourne brings about far more than personal milestones, as rewarding as they can be.

The Storm refuse to lose. Outstanding coaching can make average players good ones, but Melbourne refuse to slide down the ladder despite the NRL’s salary cap system simply because Smith and his players win matches they’re not supposed to win.

“The training under 'Bellyache' has made us mentally and physically tough,” Smith says. “Not in the sense of being the biggest guys in the competition or the team with the guys who can lift the most weights. We’re just resilient. You can go through tough periods at training and games and come out the other side and you still feel good. You can cop some whacks in games and carry niggles into that week and training, and just push through it.”

Geyer tells you that he still uses some of the lessons he learned from those early years under Bellamy and strength-and-conditioning coach Alex Corvo in his personal life in retirement.

“They had the principle that you need the kilometres into you,” Geyer says. “You needed that base. We ran hills, we ran tracks, we ran roads. We did so much running. Then more running. You don’t know what your body can do until you push it as far as possible.”

And how did Smith, who lived with Geyer when he first moved to Melbourne from Queensland, take the punishment?

“He looked up to me too much and was a consistent complainer,” Geyer laughs.

In those formative years of Smith’s career, Bellamy couldn't forecast that Smith would not only play 400 matches but would also lay claim to being the game’s greatest.

“With all due respect, no, I didn’t see it,” Bellamy says. “He wasn’t the greatest trainer when he first came here. He always looked comfortable because he wasn’t pushing himself. He had to push harder and I sat him down and told him so during one pre-season. Then he started looking more uncomfortable in training and leading the way. I don’t think you can take a mentally weak person and make them into a mentally strong person. But you can improve them. But Cameron has never been mentally weak.”

When Inglis first arrived at Melbourne as a lanky kid from the NSW mid-north coast, he soared over Slater to take a high kick at his first training session. Holy shit! The Storm players were stunned.

Smith had no such impact. He’s been so perfunctory in the way he’s gone about his business over the past 17 seasons that some often miss his subtle influences.

It’s also easy to underestimate his resilience. Remember, he plays in the middle of the field, with big men constantly running at his smaller, accountant-like frame, forcing him to make dozens of tackles per match.

“He lives in the land of the giants,” Bellamy says. “And the giants run at the little blokes.”

Indeed, has a player made as many tackles Smith has in the history of the game? Probably not. Yet, bizarrely, his body isn’t slowing down.

“When you think of the position I play in, with the work that I do, I’ve got no doubt that there’s been some form of luck in playing this number of games,” Smith says. “There just has to be. You look at all guys who pick up injuries. It’s just bad timing. I understand there has to be some sort of luck to dodge that at this stage of my career.”

“I had that feeling for the game since I was as a little fella,” Smith says. “It was never about the trophies or medallions or rep jerseys or anything like that. It was just about going out and competing. I’ve always been that. I just wanted to be the best at anything I had a crack at. I’ve learned that as I’ve got older. I realised you can’t be the strongest or the fastest: but if you can be the best you can be, you will give yourself a chance to be successful.”

Smith has come a long way from the young Queenslander who would babysit Geyer's three children while Geyer mowed the lawn. Geyer would come inside the house dripping sweat and Smith would be curled up on the lounge with his kids watching Toy Story.

Does Geyer recall telling Smith all those years ago that he didn’t think he could stay the course at Melbourne?

“Yeah I do!" he laughs. "How wrong could I be?"