“That would be a huge challenge,” he told the Herald. “To ask players to be away from their families, for an extended period of time, would be extremely difficult. It’s not what we do for a living. We’re footballers. We’re not workers who fly in, fly out. We’re not away for extended periods of time from our families. I understand these are extraordinary times. But where do we draw the line about what’s important and what’s not?
“We all want footy to come back. Me more than anyone. We love rugby league and we want it to prosper, and we want it to be in the best state it can be, but rugby league is a very small part of what’s going on at the moment. For the league to ask players to be away from their wives and children … for an extended period, it’s going to have an impact on their wellbeing.
“If we’re locked down, or in isolation, that can’t be good either; where you wake up in your hotel room, go to training and play, then back to your hotel room. That can’t be great for people’s state of mind.”
Doubtless, Smith’s comments will attract criticism. He was shot down when he spoke after the round-two win over Manly about shutting down the competition for “a couple of weeks” amid health concerns for his teammates and their families.
The NRL suspended its competition days later but there has been renewed optimism since the formation of an innovation committee about restarting soon, possibly in several isolated hubs in different locations across NSW and Queensland.
Many NRL players, including Smith’s Melbourne teammate Dale Finucane, are prepared to play in the bubble. But Smith himself would prefer the game waited until teams could safely travel again, playing in front of no crowds if necessary.
“I think that’s best-case scenario,” he said. “But, at the same time, I do totally understand that the comp has to start again for the good of the game. Being on some of the phone hook-ups we’ve had with the NRL in the past fortnight, I understand we are in some desperate times. But we are human beings first.”
As the Rugby League Players Association’s general president, Smith was front and centre of negotiations with the NRL that finally ended in the players taking a 46 per cent pay cut in the worst-case scenario of no football being played this year.
Of greater concern for the players was the revelation there was only $120m in cash reserves for a game that’s earned billions of dollars in revenue in recent years.
Asked if he was shocked about the code’s financial situation, Smith said: “As a playing group, we were. We’re not privy to those financials day to day. It wasn’t until this situation arose that a couple of things were uncovered. The lack of cashflow was one. The other was the reality of the dire situation we are in.
“Our last CBA negotiation was built around transparency and trust. We spoke to [NRL chief executive] Todd Greenberg about that and obviously Peter V’landys, who was great. He said that was the first thing he wanted to build as the chairman: trust with the players and to have total transparency. He brought a lot of confidence to the players about the future of the game.”
Smith said the chaos sparked by the coronavirus pandemic had not changed his mind about his playing future. He was expected to make a call mid-year on whether he would retire but started this season with an open mind. If anything, the delay could prolong it.
“If we don’t play this year, that’s one year of not playing footy where I’m no more fatigued than what I was at the start of this year,” he said. “I’ve played two matches. It’s not like another season taking its toll on my body and mind. If we don’t play, I may decide that I only played two games last season so I’ll go again.
“But I’m not thinking that far ahead. You can’t think even a week ahead at the moment. If I think about too many ‘what ifs’, you’ll do your head in.”
One of those “what ifs” has been the suggestion that a shortened season might allow Smith to make a stunning return for Queensland.
He doesn’t like the idea of restarting the season with State of Origin, but some romantics can already envision him leading the Maroons to a stunning last match to finish the season — and his career.
Asked if he could make a return, he gave a typically Smith answer that will keep everyone guessing.
“I’ve heard that,” he laughed. “Didn’t my mate Billy Slater toss that up?”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.