CAMERON Smith is the GOAT, for mine, the best I've seen. And for that I reckon he owes Danny Buderus a fair debt of gratitude.
Smith's decision this week to (belatedly) sound full-time on his illustrious career left this columnist with mixed emotions.
Much as it was appropriate for such an icon to bow out in fairytale fashion, after scoring a try in a grand final triumph, part of me loved the idea of the former Melbourne, Queensland and Kangaroos skipper having a Tom Brady-style swansong with Gold Coast Titans.
Instead we have to celebrate his decision to retire as a one-club player and marvel at the host of records that he leaves behind, which I doubt will ever be broken: 430 NRL games, 56 Tests, 42 Origins and 2786 competition points.
Not forgetting his eight grand final appearances for five victories, two of which were subsequently rescinded after the salary cap scandal of 2011.
Like many Novocastrians, I'm still in awe of what Andrew Johns achieved on the field.
But it's hard to argue against the statistics, longevity and dominance at all levels of the game. Joey towered over the mere mortals, but Smith did so too, for a far longer duration.
Before he established himself as a modern-day maestro, however, Smith had to earn his stripes, and Buderus, as the incumbent Test hooker, was in no mood to give him an inch.
The Newcastle No.9 welcomed his new rival to first grade by scoring two tries in Newcastle's 44-28 victory against Melbourne in 2003, then skippered NSW to consecutive Origin series victories against a Queensland team featuring L-platers like Smith and Johnathan Thurston.
By this point, Buderus had played in more than 20 Tests, captained both his state and country and won the 2004 Dally M gold medal.
He was without doubt the game's benchmark hooker, and arguably the finest of all time.
And as Storm coach Craig Bellamy noted, he was the ideal role model for Smith.
"Bellyache would often say: 'If you want to be the best in your position, look at who the best is right now.' That was Danny Buderus," Smith recalls in his recently released autobiography.
Smith added that Buderus was the "best No.9 in the game by a mile".
"In the first 10 years of my career he was the guy I looked up to as a dummy-half," he said a few years ago.
"I spent a lot of time watching vision of him to improve my game and take my game up to a new level. In a way I have to thank him for helping me have the success I've had."
The balance of power shifted in 2006. Queensland won the Origin series, Melbourne made the grand final ... and Buderus declared himself unavailable for the end-of-season Tri Nations series in England because his wife, Kris, was expecting their first child, Ella.
"I didn't ever retire from Test football, as some people thought," Buderus wrote in his autobiography. "I just made myself unavailable for the 2006 Tri Nations series.
"But I knew Cameron Smith was a great player and how hard it was to uproot the incumbent.
"I benefited from that when I was the Australian hooker."
Over the next couple of seasons, their rivalry assumed epic proportions, although Smith maintains "we always had a healthy respect when we played against each other".
By now the boot was on the other foot.
Queensland made it three straight series wins against Buderus' Blues, and the Storm emerged as a superpower, just as the Knights reached the end of a golden era.
Buderus endured a losing streak against Melbourne that spanned seven games over seven years, punctuated by a three-season stint with Leeds Rhinos.
But the veteran had one last ace up his sleeve.
In 2013, aged 35, he starred for the Knights in their 18-16 boilover against Smith's Storm in a sudden-death semi-final at AAMI Park, which ranks as one of the bravest victories in Newcastle's history.
It was a long time coming, but at least Bedsy had regained bragging rights in the penultimate game of his career.
For mine, Smith versus Buderus deserves to be remembered alongside some of the famous duels of yesteryear, like Mortimer v Sterling, Stuart v Langer, Lewis v Kenny and Harragon v Carroll.
Two champions at the top of their game, both fiercely competitive, both chasing the same prize.
And while Smith admits that analysing Buderus helped him to perfect his craft, their playing styles were a study in contrast.
Buderus was the dummy-half rocket who could carve any opposition to shreds and hit well above his weight in defence.
Smith revolutionised the game as a ball-playing hooker with an innate sense of game management.
He was a No.9 with more skills and smarts than 99 per cent of halfbacks and, indeed, would often slot in at first receiver for crucial plays.
He was also a defensive octopus, who could make 50 tackles in a game without copping a bruise, all perfectly timed to slow the play-the-ball.
Smith would have been a master in any team or any era. Buderus was the worthiest of adversaries, the opponent who inspired the best player of all time to realise his full potential.
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