When reflecting on Melbourne Storm’s 26-18 opening-round win over South Sydney last week, Craig Bellamy’s team had so many standout performers.
First there was Ryan Papenhuyzen, scorer of two tries and three conversions as the Storm staked themselves to a 22-0 lead inside the game’s first 20 minutes, as well as gaining 175 metres in all of his runs.
Then there’s Cameron Munster, who was at the centre of every Storm attacking salvo, as well as tallying the Storm’s opening try.
Or perhaps even Josh Addo-Carr or Justin Olam, whose hard-and-fast running were always difficult and challenging for the Rabbitohs’ defenders to contain.
But according to Bellamy, his best player was none of those above stalwarts.
Instead, it was Brandon Smith.
Smith, taking over the No. 9 shirt at hooker from the just-retired legend Cam Smith, racked up 35 tackles for the Storm’s highest in that statistical area to lead a determined defensive charge.
However, the 24-year-old New Zealander Smith – given the nickname “block of cheese” by NRL Immortal Andrew Johns – aided the Storm’s efforts in various manners which do not show up on the statistical sheets, in the assessment of his coach.
“He’s definitely a different dummy-half to the one we had for the previous 20 years,” Bellamy said about Smith’s efforts, in playing 70 out of 80 possible minutes.
“Defensively, he was really good for us. I didn’t know how long he would play, but to play those sorts of minutes for us, first game up, was really, really outstanding for us,” added Bellamy.
Brandon Smith’s defence-first approach to play within Bellamy’s system and tactics lie in a sharp contrast to what Cam Smith had brought to the club on a game-by-game basis.
Smith’s output of tackling at an 89.7 percent efficiency showed that he could be relied upon to close up on his tackling.
The contributions were not lost on Bellamy, particularly with a crunch Round 2 battle away to Parramatta coming up on Thursday night.
Especially with reflections from the time in which Smith was not on the AAMI Park paddock during the second half.
“For the ten minutes he was not out there, we thought we could play with the style and efficiency that we practiced all pre-season.
“But we’d have to put ‘Paps’ [Papenhuyzen] or Chris Lewis, who’s played a bit of dummy half, in there – but neither of them are true dummy halves, so we’d have to change our style a bit for those ten-to-fifteen minutes,” said Bellamy.
Smith also won praise from Munster, with the five-eighth declaring that Smith’s undying determination gets him results through matches.
“When you think he's got nothing left to give he finds a way,” Munster told Nine’s NRL coverage after the win over South Sydney.
“He was outstanding for us tonight – probably man-of-the-match in my eyes.
“He got us forward, got out of dummy-half and… he’s just a livewire,” added Munster.
In preparation for the season’s long journey, Smith knows he has big shoes to fill as Cam Smith moves on.
He faces a challenge with Harry Grant – back in the Storm’s set-up after a year’s loan to Wests Tigers – for the hooker position on a long-term basis, but he is ready for the showdown.
“To wear the No. 9 shirt is an honour, and I’m going to do everything to hold onto it,” said Smith.
“If I’m not a better hooker this year, then the pre-season has been worthless.”
Smith does not deny that he remains in sharp competition with Grant – with Bellamy admitting that if Grant had been healthy and recovered from a knee injury, he may have started and played a majority of minutes against the Rabbitohs.
But Smith also admits that the friendly rivalry drives him to be a better player, without any animosity whatsoever.
“At the end of the day, we’re best friends,” Smith said.
“We drive each other, we both want the No. 9 guernsey, but he’s going to have to take it off of me,” he added.
However, Papenhuyzen believes that instead of a competition between Smith and Grant, it’s a sense of togetherness which can be a valuable asset for Bellamy and the rest of the Storm’s tactical brains trust.
Especially when both are completely healthy, their collective speed lends another wrinkle to the Storm’s game that for all of Cam Smith’s greatness and influence, they did not have at that position previously.
“[Cam] ‘Smithy’ could slow the game down and play at his own pace. Now we’ve got two pretty quick, dynamic hookers who can get out, away from all that ruckus and we’ve just got to play off them,” said Papenhuyzen.
“That’s all that really needs adjusting, the rest of it is pretty similar to last year,” Papenhuyzen added.
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