YOU’VE heard people say “40 is the new 30”. Well Mal Meninga thinks, in rugby league terms at least, 400 will become the new 300.
Meninga was talking specifically about former Maroons and Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith, who stands on the cusp of doing something no player has done in the NRL – becoming the first to reach the milestone of 400 first grade games.
Smith will play his 384th game for the Melbourne Storm in the 2018 grand final against the Roosters, putting him within striking distance of the magical 400 mark that seemed impossible not so long ago.
Smith has agreed to terms with Melbourne next season, which will carry him past his 36th birthday and into the history books – again.
The only fly in the ointment could be a grand final victory to the Storm, with the legendary Queenslander admitting in the lead-up to the game that walking into retirement with his great mate and fellow Maroons icon Billy Slater after a premiership win could be too hard to resist.
Slater, mercifully, has been given the green light to play in his farewell match after being found not guilty of a shoulder charge at the NRL judiciary.
Smith is the only man to have played more than 40 State of Origin games, and the lure of becoming the first to break through the 400 NRL game barrier must be tempting for the man who has done everything there is to achieve in the game.
But whether Smith becomes the foundation member of the 400 club or not, Meninga says it is inevitable that the mark will be broken in the years ahead.
“I think we will see 400 become the new 300,” the 13th Immortal told fogs.com.au.
“By that I mean, where the 300-game mark was once the high-water mark for longevity in our game, I think over time that 400 will become the new measure.
“It is still going to be a rare and special achievement, but the total professionalism of our game will see players be able to extend their careers longer and longer.
“You look at the era before the game went fully professional, and there were a handful of players who reached 300 games – guys like Terry Lamb, Geoff Gerard and Cliff Lyons.
“But since the game went fully professional in the 1990s, we’ve now seen more than 30 players reach the milestone of 300 games.
“I think Cameron represents the first of the next era – ultra-professional guys who are able to look after themselves and manage their careers well into their late 30s.
“When I retired, I was 34 and I was considered old. It used to be that 30 was considered an expiry date. Now you have Cameron saying he wants to go around again next year at 36.
“And so he should – he has lost nothing as a player. When I walked away, I had nothing left to give it.
But Cameron is just so durable and resilient. The special thing about him is the fact that he continues to control the game so well”.
Before Smith contemplates a potential 400th game, his main priority will be the Storm’s grand final showdown with the Roosters – a game between clubs from Sydney and Melbourne that couldn’t have more of a Queensland flavour if it had been marinated in XXXX and served with a slice of pineapple.
Smith will captain the Storm at hooker, going head-to-head with Roosters skipper Jake Friend, his long-time Maroons understudy.
Queensland enforcer Dylan Napa makes his return from suspension for the Roosters, but it is the player in Roosters jersey No.23 that will be attracting all of the attention.
Cooper Cronk has been named in the unfamiliar number as he struggles to recover from a shoulder injury to take his place in the team – but you suspect it will take more than that to stop the former Maroons match-winner from taking the field.
Cronk will of course go up against the club he led to last year’s premiership, and into a personal duel with Smith and Slater – his fellow members in the trio formerly known as the Storm’s “big three”.
And of course the purple of the Storm has a distinctly Maroon hue about it, with Queensland Origin stars Cameron Munster, Tim Glasby, Will Chambers and Felise Kaufusi all lining up for Melbourne.
Adding further intrigue for Queensland fans is the fact Melbourne will steal another page in the history books should they beat the Roosters at ANZ Stadium.
If they win, Melbourne will become the first back-to-back premiers in the NRL era – the first team since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992-93 to defend their title in a unified competition.