Feud? Smith dishes on Slater relationship
FIRST Melbourne's "Big Three" split up when Cooper Cronk set sail for the Roosters, then the dream team suffered another blow as it emerged Cameron Smith's relationship with Billy Slater had broken down.
Cronk hugged all his former teammates after the Storm beat the Roosters by a point in June - all except Smith, who received a cold handshake with barely any eye contact.
The exchange sent the footy world into a frenzy as fans wondered how a pair who had enjoyed so much success together could possibly interact like that.
Then there were reports a falling-out between Slater's wife Nicole and Smith's wife Barbara was behind the players' explosive feud, which only intensified talk about the NRL's most influential trio no longer being so tight.
Slater played down suggestions of any tension between he and Smith earlier in the year and now the Melbourne captain has paid an emotional tribute to his longtime partner in crime, implying he's not willing to buy into any talk of an alleged feud.
During the week Slater announced he will retire at season's end and Smith had nothing but kind words for one of his "best mates" who has stood alongside him during World Cup triumphs, grand final wins and State of Origin victories.
Writing a first person piece for Players Voice, Smith spoke about how he and Slater bonded as they began their NRL journeys in Melbourne, describing their experiences living in a new city and trying to make their mark in first grade.
He also spoke of the admiration he has for Slater, who has overcome plenty of obstacles to cement himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
"We all leaned on each other in those early days," Smith said. "I didn't realise it at the time, but this was the period when my life began to run parallel with Billy's.
"It started with footy, first at the Storm, then Queensland and Australia, but it would also apply to our lives as husbands and fathers.
"We did all those things around the same time. I think now about how lucky I've been.
"I mean, how many people in life get to share all of their biggest moments in their professional and personal lives with one of their best mates?"
Smith admitted he and Slater are wired differently as footy players. Smith takes after Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy, preferring high-percentage plays and doing the fundamentals well, whereas Slater was more open to taking risks, and wasn't deterred if they didn't pay off.
And there were times Smith was in awe of Slater's freakish talent.
"There were parts of me that looked at Billy with admiration. He could do things I couldn't," Smith said.
"The speed, the agility, the ability to take on defenders down a three-metre blind-side - I just didn't have that in my game.
"There have been many times where I have seen Bill do things and thought, 'There's no one else in the world who could've scored that try from that play.'
"Billy became the best attacking weapon in the game by retaining all his aggressive instincts while understanding the right time to employ them. And because we knew each other so well, we could kind of anticipate what the other was thinking. This applied to Coops, too. We all knew each other so well and that helped on the field."
While Barbara and Nicole are reportedly at the centre of the Smith-Slater falling out, Smith opened up on how close each other's families were, at least before this most recent development.
Detailing the emotional turmoil Slater went through when a shoulder injury ruined his 2015 season before more surgery was required to fix the problem, wreaking havoc with his 2016 campaign, Smith said he feared Slater's career was over.
Seeing the representative fullback struggling also impacted his wife and two children, and Smith remembers the phone call between the pair's wives when Slater found out he needed more surgery to repair his troublesome shoulder.
"I remember Nicole contacting my wife, Barb, to tell us the news. You could sense the heartache in her voice," Smith wrote. "Barb and I were out somewhere but dropped what we were doing and headed straight over to where the Slaters were. We wanted to show our support.
"I remember seeing the devastation on Billy's face and not knowing the right words to say.
"He had a decision to make. He could've called it a day or pushed ahead with more surgery and the risk of permanent damage. I just wanted him to do whatever was right for his future. The footy didn't matter. If he'd played his last game, and that was the right thing for his family, it would've been fine. Difficult, but fine."
In the end, Slater refused to quit, getting a second round of surgery in the hope of prolonging his career. He didn't just prolong it, he got back to his best - an achievement Smith described as "incredible".
After announcing this season will be his last in the NRL, Slater will be hoping to finish his illustrious journey with a grand final win - and Smith will be doing his best to give him just that.
"On a personal note, I would like to send Billy out a winner," Smith said.
"We'll all be doing our best to make that happen. It will be extremely tough. There are plenty of teams out there who want exactly what we want. Not many people in rugby league get the fairytale finish.
"But if anyone deserves it, it's Bill. We're going to have to find something special to make these final few weeks as memorable as possible."