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A unique player with hot-and-cold form who could spark Storm title run

Brandon Smith is unique, just like every other person on the planet.

It’s one of those misused words in the modern English language, there are no degrees of being unique, something is or it isn’t and everyone is.

But when it comes to his playing style, the Melbourne forward is very much a unique player.

Try to think of a player, past or present, who reminds you of Smith. It’s not easy.

He’s nominally a hooker but plays mostly as a lock. 

In the modern era the first name that springs to mind is Raiders legend Steve Walters.

The Raiders celebrate a NSWRL premiership

Steve Walters, Ricky Stuart, Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde and Brett Mullins celebrate after winning the 1994 ARL Grand Final for Canberra over Canterbury. (Photo by Getty Images)

In his era, Ben Elias was a creator and Kerrod Walters was a darter, but Steve was a dummy-half who could also play like an extra second-rower and hit as hard as a prop in defence.

Smith’s not like any other hookers, or locks for that matter, who have shone on the NRL stage since – he’s very different to Melbourne’s starting No.9, Harry Grant, a darter, or their previous long-term option, Cameron Smith, the ultimate game manager.

Although he shares a lot of traits with Walters, he is much quicker on his feet and able to tear through opposition defensive lines with a sidestep, as he did against Penrith last Thursday night in his 45-metre run to the try line.

It was actually a similar four-pointer to one scored by a player who Smith does actually bear a resemblance – former Dragons and Eels hooker Mark Riddell, whose famous post-try celebration in the WIN Stadium grandstand two decades ago was the result of an almost identical run to the stripe.

The short legs that turn at a rapid rate and stout frame, Smith and Riddell are cut from the same cloth but the current-day Kiwi star seems to have a much longer motor and greater game-changing ability.

Melbourne missed Smith during his recent three-game absence after being banned for calling a referee a “f—ing cheat”.

They are 11-5 with Smith in the team this year but 2-2 when he’s been out.

Maybe that discrepancy in records is a coincidence because Smith’s form has been down on his output the past two seasons at the Storm, especially 2021 when he was named Dally M Hooker of the Year.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 07: Brandon Smith of the Storm warms up during the round 17 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Melbourne Storm at PointsBet Stadium, on July 07, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Brandon Smith. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

He’s averaging less than 50 minutes per game this season, down from 59 in 2021.

Last year he set up 10 tries and scored 11 of his own in 24 appearances, the barnstorming try against the Panthers was just his third for this season and he’s only assisted for two others.

Because his playing style is so unusual it’s hard to get a gauge via stats on his form.

The Storm’s decision to play him mostly as a roaming lock with Harry Grant taking care of dummy-half duties is nothing new for Smith, who performed a similar role, usually off the bench when his namesake, King Cameron, ruled the Melbourne realm.

In his 102 matches since his 2017 debut, Smith has only started at hooker on 45 occasions and a 12-game stint last season when Grant was injured was his longest stretch in the purple No.9 jersey.

This season he’s been given eight starts at hooker, filled in once at prop, been used off the interchange six times and just twice as the run-on side’s lock with former Knights honest toiler Josh King wearing the No.13 jersey in 16 of Melbourne’s 20 matches, filling the reliable workhorse role left vacant by Dale Finucane’s switch to the Sharks.

The Roosters believe Smith can thrive in his preferred position after winning the race for his signature ahead of big-money offers from the Dolphins and Bulldogs on a three-year deal reportedly in the $2.4 million ballpark.

They have allowed a more than capable hooker in Sam Verrills walk to the Titans to accommodate Smith’s arrival and have the likes of Connor Watson and Drew Hutchison on the books to back Smith up as it’s unlikely he’s going to become an 80-minute player next year.

And that’s not what the Roosters want – they want quality, not quantity out of Smith because that’s his strength.

Also, they already have a lock with ball-playing ability filling out the No.13 jersey in Victor Radley, who has traversed the opposite path in that he was used as a hooker and tipped to be Jake Friend’s replacement early in his career before getting a chance to shine at the back of the scrum (not that locks actually slot into that position in the formation anymore).

Smith pushed the envelope in the off-season when he disrespected the Storm and their famed culture in a podcast when he said the club had  a “massive drinking culture” and talked up the professionalism of the Roosters, before he had even officially signed with them or notified his current employers.

Which then led to Bellamy, football manager Frank Ponissi and CEO Justin Rodski reading him the proverbial riot act amid speculation of his contract being torn up or (perhaps even worse) being traded for the season to the Wests Tigers, prompting the professional sportsperson’s favoured modern-day mea culpa, the social media apology post.

In one of the many ways Bellamy endears himself to his players, the veteran coach tolerates the antics of Smith and Cameron Munster in particular – to a certain point – because he knows that’s part of their personality. They both had to dye their locks blond this season for breaking team rules. It’s looked bad on Munster, terrible as it’s grown out through Smith’s dark mane.

Smith has an opportunity to finish his Storm career with a bang, and potentially a second premiership ring to go with his 2020 momento.

Along with Munster and Grant, he has the game-changing ability that the team is lacking with Ryan Papenhuyzen injured and the likes of Josh Addo-Carr and Nicho Hynes long gone.

Melbourne were questioned just a couple of weeks ago when they dropped out of the top four whether they could still compete for a title.

They’ve bounced back with three straight wins, including their 16-0 triumph over a depleted Penrith line-up last week, to regain fourth spot and show they’re not yet a spent force.

They still have a trip to Brisbane, a home clash with the Roosters and a CommBank Stadium assignment with Parramatta to complete the regular season so they’re still far from guaranteed an all-important top-four finish.

But if Smith can keep coming up with plays like his try that drove a dagger through the Panthers’ hearts last week then the Storm are still well and truly in the hunt for the title.

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