QUEENSLAND coach Kevin Walters elevated Maroons captain Cameron Smith into royal company following his first State of Origin series win, describing the Melbourne Storm No.9 as the best player to lead his state.
And the man many believe will always have that title, Wally Lewis, did not disagree with Walters’ assessment after Smith, with the help of a brilliant Johnathan Thurston, led Queensland to an almost unbelievable 10thseries victory in 11years since the champion side started its domination back in 2006.
Smith admitted he felt humbled by his coach’s high praise.
He preferred to share the glory with his champion team of players, including lock Corey Parker, who after announcing his retirement on Monday now goes out on an Origin high.
Lewis, one of many former greats and ex-captains, including Gorden Tallis and Darren Lockyer, packed into the Queensland sheds after the 26-16 win, said Smith was entitled to be called “the best” as the mighty maroon machine rolled on to another Origin triumph.
“The thing about Cameron and the thing about all the great players is the amount of time they have and the composure they show under pressure,” said Lewis, who captained Queensland in all but one of his 31 Origins.
Lewis took over the reins from Arthur Beetson in 1981 and remained captain until he retired a winner in 1991.
“There’s no doubt when he finally retires, whenever that might be, he will be looked back upon as one of the game’s greatest leaders and not just for Queensland but for his club Melbourne and Australia,” added the man nicknamed “The King”, who holds the record of eight Origin man-of-the-match awards.
Walters opened his post-match press conference by praising Smith, whom he was involved with as an assistant coach under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne before linking up with Brisbane.
“If there’s a better person or captain that this country has seen than the bloke (Smith) sitting beside me, someone better identify him,” said Walters on a high after his first Origin series win since replacing Mal Meninga.
“I’ve worked with some great people and some great captains and played with some great captains but this bloke is really something else.”
“I think he put the icing on the cake tonight with his performance, the way he is around the team and how he controls himself on and off the field.
“Queensland has had some great leaders but certainly none better than Cameron Smith.
“He’s been a rock for me, no doubt – all the senior players have been.
“He took the baton from Darren Lockyer in 2011 and the team hasn’t missed a beat and has kept getting better.”
Smith was slightly embarrassed by such high praise from his coach but his magnificent record justifies Walters’ comments.
“It’s quite humbling to hear that from a guy you watched on TV as a little fella,” Smith said.
“He was a part of the team I supported and wanted to play for as I was growing up.
“For me I just try and make everyone around me play the best they can and make sure more than anything they are ready to go on game day.
“If I do that I feel I have succeeded as a leader, which is all you can do.”
“To finish off the series at home in front of our fans, who were fantastic, is a great feeling because wherever we go in the state, people drive for four or five hours just to come and see us players.
“That shows how much this game means to them and what the team means to them.
“That’s who we were playing for tonight.”
Walters said Origin had been his dream since he was a 13-year-old kid in the outer at Lang Park when Arthur Beetson led Queensland on to the field for the first Origin game in 1980.
“There was a thunderous roar, and that moment has stayed with me ever since,” he said.
“From that moment I wanted to be part of Origin in some way. I was fortunate to play and then to get the opportunity to coach was another stepping stone for me.”
Three-try hero Dane Gagai, who was tackled more times by the media after the game than NSW players on the field, said he couldn’t believe he had finished his third Origin game with a hat-trick.
“I haven’t even scored a hat-trick in the NRL,” he beamed.
Gagai, who went into the game under and injury cloud after receiving intensive treatment for a quad strain, took the field with the name of his seven-week-old son Dante written on his wrist.
During the pre-game entertainment, Thurston was blowing kisses towards the stands where his wife Samantha and young daughters Charlie and Frankie and other family were sitting.
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