‘Barb was shattered’: Cam Smith breaks silence on affair
The Storm Within. The title of Cameron Smith's autobiography is a neat play on words but could still have worked if his club was the Broncos or the Wests Tigers not the Melbourne Storm.
Don't worry about the Storm Man mascot and lightning bolt on his jersey. There was a real storm within - many, in fact - but throughout the 18-year span of rugby league's most decorated career we only got to hear rumbling thunder in the distance because he often chose not to publicly dump hail stones on anyone's tin roof.
The man nicknamed The Accountant kept those storms swirling away inside him, well concealed behind a chiselled face, an impassive, accountant-like demeanour and an unyielding belief that the best way to keep a controversy under control was to shunt his inner thoughts well away from public view. Until now.
The term explosive is probably a tad too strong for Smith's work because rugby league's coolest cat doesn't do explosions. But while there is no stick of gelignite, a steady flow of crackling grenades will trigger a spicy blow-back, as everything Smith does and says tends to do. Smith hops into senior league officials for the way the Storm team were treated during the infamous salary cap scandal when they were stripped of two premierships, believing his club's punishment was far more severe than other clubs who later transgressed.
He takes furious exception to a team-mate using social drugs.
He was so shattered that he and his "devastated'' wife Barb were portrayed as "greedy'' for her accepting a ring which was an NRL gift for his 400th game that it almost forced him out of the game.
He attacks social media users for spreading a malicious and baseless rumour he was having an affair with Fox Sports presenter Yvonne Sampson.
He admitted to being surprised when former team-mate Cooper Cronk brushed his offer of a hug for a quick handshake after they met as on-field rivals but denies they have ever had a bust-up.
Smith has time to speak about all this because he quips, "I'm unemployed … The 2021 contracts started yesterday and I haven't got one. I'm out of a job."
But more of that later.
Even if it's not slapped down in categorical form, a key theme of the book is that Smith and his rugby league club were, in part, driven by the timeless motivational forces of thinking the rest of the league world did not want them to win, were jealous of their success and suspicious of their methods. "There's certainly instances when the 'us versus the world' mentality was there. There are times when being out of the NRL bubble you feel like an outcast. Maybe there was that dark inner side of me that built things up which helped motivate me but what helped me much more was the high standards drive by you know who, (coach) Craig Bellamy."
Pulling away the curtain to at last share his inner thoughts was a satisfying experience. "The one thing that never changed for me from when I was six years old was that I just wanted to play the game, go home, live a normal life and I was never one for wanting to be caught up in headline-making or controversy. I wanted to get on with life so that's why I didn't let a lot of it out.
"But writing a book is good because I can address a lot of things that happened to me throughout my career."
Smith's journey was the most decorated in the code's history but was full of polarising moments:
THE MCKINNON INCIDENT
The most controversial incident of Smith's career came in a match against Newcastle on Monday, March 24, 2014, when Knights forward Alex McKinnon suffered a serious spinal injury that left him wheelchairbound. Smith was immediately under fire for a perceived lack of sensitivity with several exchanges with referee Gerard Sutton after the Storm were penalised for a dangerous throw, with Smith maintaining McKinnon always had one foot on the ground and was never lifted.
Smith does not apologise for his actions ("I did what any other captain would do") but does explain them, maintaining he initially did not know how serious the injury was and sensed the concern "was probably precautionary ... that is what happened 9.9 times out of 10 when a player is injured like that. They leave the field but they are back the following week. That was my initial thought." Smith said all of the players wanted to make contact with McKinnon in hospital but were told he could not have visitors because he was in intensive care and they were also told they would not be welcome.
He reveals that his club again felt under attack after the incident.
"The truth is what happened to Alex rocked all of us and it didn't take long for the barbs to come out for the Melbourne Storm. Someone had been seriously injured while playing against the Storm and of course the reason was our "grubby tactics".
"The accusation was our defensive system was dangerous and on this occasion the consequences were devastating."
60 LONG MINUTES
Smith has never watched the full 60 Minutes episode in which McKinnon was interviewed but he is fully aware of the tone in which he was cast as a heartless villain more concerned with the merits of a penalty than a man's life-changing injury.
He was in camp with the Queensland team preparing for a State of Origin game when the episode aired, showing McKinnon taking offence to Smith's questioning of the referee, asking "is he f..king serious?".
Smith was so angry he banned Channel 9 from interviewing him on Origin night and admitted that caused an instant strain on old friendships.
"There was no way I was talking to them. It put me in an awkward position because Darren Lockyer - my former captain and a really good mate - was on the Nine panel.
"It had nothing to do with him but I couldn't have anything to do with him because he was carrying a Channel 9 microphone." Smith claimed his teammates "carried a lot of anger into that game" and duly won 52-6.
Later Smith met with McKinnon who, according to Smith, apologised for his statements on 60 Minutes, claiming the vision was shown repeatedly until McKinnon gave an angry reaction. Smith told McKinnon his apology was unnecessary and 10 months later the issue came to a head at a dinner at Crown Casino where Smith met with Channel 9 boss Hugh Marks and NRL chief Todd Greenberg.
"We asked why I had not been contacted for a comment before the program aired and they said they didn't feel like I needed to be in it. That made no sense. Why wouldn't they give me a chance to share my opinion?" Smith said he felt used and choked up while making his point.
He told the group: "What about my wife and children? This is a show that is shown across the entire country and look at the way you have portrayed me as a person?"
He was promised an apology on The Footy Show - which eventually he got - but threatened not to go on stage just before receiving it when informed it would be made by Paul Vautin rather than a Nine executive. "I walked away that night pissed off … after everything that happened they could not even get the apology right."
When Smith was informed by his manager Isaac Moses rumours were circling on social media that he was having an affair with well-respected presenter Sampson he was so taken aback he started laughing. But a few seconds later the smile turned upside down amid anger and concern for two people most affected by the rumours - Sampson and his wife Barb.
"Honestly, if I was going to have an affair - which I never would - why would I do it with someone with a profile as big as hers? And in my own sport?
"It was just cruel … rumours that were completely untrue. When I told Barb she was shattered. It floored her.
"I could handle it but I was concerned for her and Yvonne, who had been around our game for a long time and we all know how well-respected she is.
"She was just about to get married and it was just so sad. The first time I did an interview with her after it I felt for her."
Sampson and Barb Smith had a text exchange to check on each other's welfare and Sampson floated the possibility of publicly crushing the rumours when Smith appeared on Fox Sport's League Life in 2018 but Smith decided to let the issue pass.
THE TORTURE TEST
The book vividly unveils details of the shamelessly brutal pre-season training regime which drove the Storm to the top of the rugby league world.
Rival clubs such as the Brisbane Broncos, who this season became renowned for their lack of fitness and second-half fadeouts, should be warned this book contains graphic, severely chastening content if you are an overweight, half-fit rugby league player.
Sport has many stories about athletes like Olympic swimming gold medallist Stephanie Rice jumping out of a pool to vomit during a torrid session - the difference for Smith was he felt like throwing up before it started. Such was his apprehension about what lay ahead as the Storm players ran for about 50km a week, the thought of the session was as gruelling as the session itself. "People were actually running into the scrub or the toilets to vomit before they started because they were so intimidated by what was going to happen."
Smith revealed two players - superstar Cooper Cronk and Fijian winger Semi Tadulala - had to be rushed to hospital. Tadulala was taunted for being weak after falling in a heap during a group session but it was later revealed he had a collapsed lung.
Cronk also went down and was called "soft" before being taken to hospital where tests revealed medication he was taking for osteitis pubis had created serious ulcers in his stomach. "Cooper wasn't being soft. He was seriously ill."
A young Smith was warned by housemate Matt Geyer, "I don't know how much longer you will last here doing this type of training … it's too much."
But last he did and, in fact, he felt the brutality of those sessions cast pellets of steel in the side's collective soul.
THE DOG'S TALE
Smith's relationship with coach Bellamy is rugby league's version of 50 Shades of Craig; part fear, part deep respect, part dread at earning his wrath, part fascination that anyone could have such a "lunatic" obsession with the game.
Somewhere in there was the affection of having him as a mentor and mate and someone whose bristling intensity demanded to be thoroughly taken the piss out of. And so the chapter on Bellamy is simply titled Dog Head.
"His nickname was Bellyache but we had others for him - including Dog Head, Dog Face and Dog Features," Smith wrote.
"Anytime he was riled up or was carrying on in the coach's box during a game he would start spitting or have saliva building up at the corner of his mouth.
'"Look at this bloke!' I'd joke. 'It's like a dog with rabies. He's a rabid dog frothing at the mouth'.'' Smith enjoyed this part of the book but fears, "he will never forgive me for writing it." Early on in their association Smith tried to break down Bellamy with jokes because he "wanted to report back to the group that this lunatic was okay."
He said Bellamy was so intimidating when he first landed at the Storm that players would sometimes avoid eye contact with him as they walked past.
But Smith loved Bellamy's directness, even if it came at his expense. Like the day at training when he said, "If you can't learn to pass left to right I'm going to have to find someone else."
THE FLICKED SWITCH
Smith has a well-earned reputation for never wasting a second on or off the field.
Famously he was always the last man on a bus, the last face through the door for a team meeting - sometimes deliberately so just to bait the coach - and that never changed. Early on in his career, if he was given three minutes, 40 seconds to do a run, he would deliberately cruise in with two seconds to spare and a spoonful of petrol still in the tank.
But this part of him, the cruise-controlled trainer, did change ... for good.
The seminal moment was a chat with Bellamy who took him aside at training to slip a burr on his saddle.
"The one thing I have learned in my time is that if you want to be a good player, train in your comfort zone," Bellamy said. "But the champions push themselves. They get the best out of themselves, I want to see you push yourself." Chastened but conceding the point, Smith "red-lined" for the rest of his career, and now feels he would never have been the player he was if Bellamy had not detonated the spark plug beneath him.
A HOLLOW RING
It started out as a goodwill gesture and became rugby league's ring of fire and the scorching flames almost prompted Smith to quit the sport. Smith was told by then NRL boss Todd Greenberg the game's governing body wanted to honour his family for his 400th NRL game and suggested a special diamond ring as a gift for his wife Barb.
Smith, who was given a Waterford crystal football himself, thought it was a great idea - until the cyclone hit.
When the news of the ring became public it triggered a savage media backlash and the NRL hierarchy was quizzed as to why the ring was not officially listed among the gifts it would give Smith.
"It was claimed the money could have been better spent on grassroots football. I could not believe what our game had become. This had overstepped the mark. And Barb was devastated," he says.
"What was worse we were blamed for taking money away from where it should be spent - as if we were stealing money from junior clubs.
"Things were getting out of control and it forced me, at the end of the 2019 season, to ask myself some serious questions. Should I walk away from the game? Or keep playing and put my family through this unwanted scrutiny."
Barb told her husband: "If it is that much of a problem I will give it back. I was appreciative they thought of me but it has become different from what it was intended to be.'' The debate never reached that point. The ring stayed with the Smith family.
"She wears it on special occasions,'' Cam said. "I think she even wore it to the Grand Final which was great but it was a really difficult period. Barb has been someone who has given back to rugby league. That in turn has helped the NRL so I think Todd was acutely aware of that and just wanted to honour not only the person who played the 400 games but the person who really helped me get there. And that was Barb.''
THE CRONK MYSTERY
Smith has played down any suggestion there is a major rift between himself and his long-serving Brisbane Norths and Melbourne team-mate Cooper Cronk - but there is a mysterious icy thread to the story he cannot explain.
When Cronk joined the Roosters they faced off in round 16 in 2018 and Smith started heckling Cronk early in the match with lines like, "Coopsy … here he is."
When Cronk did not reply Smith said "don't be like that" and after the match - which the Storm won 9-8 - Cronk hugged former Melbourne teammate Joe Stimson who was in the line ahead of Smith but reserved a quick hand shake but no hug for Smith. "Wow," Smith thought. "What's up with Cooper?"
While Smith was asking that so were many others about their relationship.
"I wish I could give them an answer. I had no idea." And he still doesn't. "I thought it was a little strange but from that day Coops hasn't told me there is an issue and I have not had an issue with Coops. We spoke after they beat us in the prelim final last year, so yeah, it's a bit of a strange one."
THE BRONCOS LAMENT
Smith is not the sort of warm and fuzzy character who will send tears down your cheeks with emotional flashbacks but Broncos talent scouts may tear-up when they are reminded about how they missed the most enduring player of all time. "I'd start dreaming of playing for the Broncos," Smith says as early as page 11, calling himself a "Broncos tragic" who attended their games and idolised Allan Langer, Wally Lewis and, his favourite of all, winger Mick Hancock.
Smith recalls the three players his age the Broncos were more interested in - Dane Campbell, Daniel Jones and Mick Daley - but Broncos coach Wayne Bennett did eventually knock on his door. Bennett even asked him, "What is your main weakness?" and Smith replied, "I'm not very fast."
The sliding doors moment which made Smith choose the Storm over the Broncos came down to a numbers game. Smith noted Brisbane had two first grade hookers - Luke Priddis and Mick Ryan - while the Storm had just Kiwi international Richard Swain, so he went to the shallower pool. It was that simple. Two versus one. And so, on this tiny thread, one dynasty crumbled and another had its foundation stone.
LISTENING, LEARNING ...
The rugby league world has long found the whole Smith package - his quick thinking, endurance and longevity - quite unexplainable which is why the very first two sentences of the book are so enchanting. "When I am on a football field, I feel like I can see into the future. My brain tells me the story of how the game will unfold before it happens."
Then he explains how his mind works and how it has been hardwired. As the son of a Brisbane Easts first-grade rugby league hooker of the 1970s, Wayne Smith, Cameron used to shadow and sponge off his father's every word when he was coaching junior teams of boys much older than his son, learning angles, plays and deception. His father, who retired at just 24, occasionally took him to his job as a bricklayer which convinced Cameron of one essential truth - he didn't want to be a brickie.
"I was never the strongest or the fastest player or the one with the most talent - that's why I had to be the smartest," Smith said. He revealed his game was built on nuance with three checkpoints - how the man in possession was carrying the ball which meant how quickly he could play it, where the first marker was standing and whether he was capable of being passed and where the first defender was standing and what sort of shape he was in. Of course there were a million other threads but that's where it started.
THE FINAL CHALLENGE
On the field, Smith was the undisputed king of the quick, clear call, almost like a touch typist working on instinct. But Cam the Conqueror can morph into Cam the Ponderer off the field where he is taunted by wife Barb with lines like, "Any danger of you ever making a bloody decision?" The quote had special resonance this month because Smith admitted there was one key issue - the most important of all - which froze his mental keyboard ... retirement. After 430 games for the Storm, 56 Tests and 42 Origins, you'd think the answer would simply drop from the heavens, but it didn't.
In some ways, at age 37 this season, retirement seemed so logical. Playing on after the Storm's grand final win over Penrith would seem as unnecessary as summoning Winx or Black Caviar from the paddock for one last start. What would any of them have to prove?
But the trouble is he listened for the fulltime siren to go off inside his head and the silence was deafening. Smith knows no one can outrun Father Time but he also knows even in his prime he barely kept pace with him anyway.
One day, early this season, Smith rang Barb and said, "It's not normal, darl. I'm 37 and I feel like I'm playing as well as I have ever played. Nothing is telling me to stop."
Searching for guidance, he phoned Johnathan Thurston who explained he quit because his body would not allow him to play how he wanted to. But Smith thought, "Mine actually does".
Paul Gallen told him the bell rang for him when he woke one morning and thought, "I'm done." Smith realised he had not had that thought. The more clarity he sought the more clouds he saw. At the time of writing this story he was still a confused man despite the fact that 99 per cent of the football public has pencilled in his grand final win at the Storm as his last game of football. For the first time in the conversation he sounds slightly perplexed.
"The thing that gets me is that Billy (Slater), Gal and JT all said they knew the exact moment when they could not do it any more and enough was enough. I have not woken up and thought, "Nup, I just can't do it."
Even the book publishers were caught off guard. They sensed this would be a no-strings-attached, slam-it-on -the-table, cut-off point to the greatest rugby league career in history and were surprised when he kept them guessing beyond the season's end. "We just decided to go with it rather than wait for the decision because we felt we had a great book already as it was and a story worth telling."
It was indeed.
The Storm Within by Cameron Smith with Andrew Webster, Allen & Unwin, RRP $49.99. Available in all good bookstores from tomorrow.
Originally published as 'Barb was shattered': Cam Smith breaks silence on Yvonne affair rumour