Cameron Smith will play a record 400th NRL game when he runs out for the Storm this weekend.
Cameron Smith will play a record 400th NRL game when he runs out for the Storm this weekend. Scott Barbour

Smith closes in on 400th but Lewis still No.1

WALLY is still 'The King'.

To those whose memories - and years on this earth - are not as long as mine, the opinions in this column may be akin to treason. And they might seem inappropriate on the eve of one of the greatest milestones anyone in the game has achieved.

But as Cameron Smith steps onto Melbourne's AAMI Park on Saturday night to play his 400th NRL game and reach a landmark unlikely to be eclip\sed, I have to confess that I can't rate him the best I have seen.

Sure, he has been - and still is - a phenomenal player. His incredible stats don't lie. But in my eyes, Wally Lewis still reigns supreme.

And, to rub further salt into the wounds of those who have watched in awe as Smith has assembled an implausible 399 NRL games, 42 Origins and 56 Tests, I can't put him at No.2 either. That gong goes to Andrew Johns.

But Smith does come in at No.3, on equal footing with Johnathan Thurston, and just a smidgen ahead of the quintet of Allan Langer, Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Brad Fittler and Mal Meninga.

My ratings don't extend as far as my memory, so the likes of Immortals Bob Fulton, Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper and Graeme Langlands aren't considered. I started covering the game as an occupation in 1980, so that's as far back as I'm assessing.

State of Origin 1989 game 2 Wally Lewis scores a try Queensland wins 16 to 12
Wally Lewis made the State of Origin arena his own.

Because Lewis made only 80 appearances in what is now known as the NRL competition, many will argue his record comes nowhere near the incredulous heights of Smith. And they make a fair point.

But like Smith, and each of the aforementioned, Lewis was a freakish talent. He had every skill in the book and although he wasn't a point-scoring machine like the Storm legend, he too could kick goals when called upon.

The great ones - Smith, Lewis, Thurston, Johns and Lockyer in particular - always seemed to have time on their side.

They had that rare ability to seemingly read a game one or two plays ahead of their opposition.

But in that area of expertise, Lewis was the King. He may have been an epilepsy sufferer during his playing career, but there was no issue with his football brain.

Lewis was as tough as old boots, a brutal defender, could land a strategic kick on a sixpence and, like Smith, was the definitive schemer. If Smith hecklers reckon the Storm skipper cons referees, they would have marvelled at the King.

Cameron Smith of the Storm passes during the Round 10 NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and the Wests Tigers at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Thursday, May 16, 2019.  (AAP Image/Hamish Blair) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Smith has dominated the game since arriving at the Storm as a teenager. HAMISH BLAIR

Lewis is credited with 358 appearances at the top level, in a career that spanned 16 seasons, and that includes all his rep games. That's 42 appearances less than the number Smith will rack up on Saturday night, merely in the NRL.

And the fact Lewis spent the first decade of his career playing in what was considered an inferior Brisbane domestic competition, his record pales in the eyes of many.

But while he may not have been in top gear each and every minute of each and every game back then, his class was patently obvious, as are the gifts of Smith every weekend.

I'm not decrying the status of Smith, who is also the NRLs top point-scorer. And at 36 and still playing as well as ever, his 501 appearances at the top level could reach a number about which future players will merely fantasise.

It's just that King Wally was, in the words of Tina Turner, simply the best, and better than all the rest.