When Cameron Smith inevitably calls time on his glorious career there will be a vacuum that needs to be filled.
Like when Andrew Johns retired it was Johnathan Thurston who stepped up to become the premier No.7 in the game. It has happened countless times in the history of rugby league and it will happen again with the eventual retirement of Smith.
It is too early to say Jayden Brailey is going to be the next Cameron Smith. But that is already Brailey’s goal. To be the best. To one day assume that mantle.
The Cronulla Sharks announced late last month the 21-year-old had re-signed with the club for a further three years after a hugely successful first season in the top grade. Brailey is already being groomed as a leader of the club. While Test forward Wade Graham may be next in line to assume the Sharks captaincy after Paul Gallen, it might be that Brailey is second in line.
Brailey was chosen as one of four young Sharks to walk the Kokoda Track as part of a nine-day trek in October. He lost two and a half kilograms on the expedition as the club looked to foster their next generation of leaders.
The Aquinas Colts junior has spent hours studying Kangaroos and Melbourne captain Smith, always hoping to add the next one per cent to his own game. And Brailey told the Leader he would continue to chase his idol.
“I was watching him during the World Cup. He’s kicking on tackle two going for 40/20s. He’s just controlling the game, turning those big boys around. I notice all those little things,” he said.
“So to be able to dictate games and control them how he does is something I want to do. Because he’s looked at as being the best.”
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan believes Brailey is a future representative player – and the future of the Sharks. It is a vision Brailey shares. Despite it only being early days in his career Brailey already wants to commit his future to his local club, taking inspiration from his captain.
To be able to control games how Cameron Smith does is something I want to do. Because he’s the best.Jayden Brailey
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else other than the shire,” he said.
“I’m still living at home. I’ve got my family here. I love the club and all the staff. I’ve been here since I was 13. They’ve done so much work for me to get where I am.
“Given the influence Gal has at this club, he’s a one club man. He’s played 300 games here and achieved so much. I wouldn’t want to ever look anywhere else. I want to stay here as long as I can. If the Sharks want to keep me I’m happy.
“[Gallen] has spoken in the past, you can see how he trains how much it means to him to play for the Sharks. He has spoken about it as a team last year how being a one club man is special, more than hopping from club to club. You see how he interacts with the fans for all the years he’s been here, they love him.”
Brailey has a maturity that belies his tender years. He understands the responsibility, and the privilege, he enjoys. He is also driven. Any player can say they want to play State of Origin but Brailey is already taking steps to one day make it happen.
As well as studying video of Smith, Brailey has been doing extra one on one training with Sharks 2016 premiership-winning hooker Michael Ennis for the last two seasons. Already a former Junior Kangaroo representative and the Dally M Holden Cup player of the year in 2016, Brailey is not content to simply be a young player with promise.
“I want to have a much bigger impact on each game. Have a bit more of a say and be able to control it. I had a look at my numbers at the end of the year and I think attack wise they’re not quite where I want them to be [in 2018]. I want to have more try assists and line break assists,” he said.
“Defensively I was pretty happy, there’s still a couple of things I need to fix but if I can add more numbers in attack and bring something to this team like Michael Ennis did I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m still only 21, obviously I want to play rep football in my career at some stage. It’s probably a bit early to say it’s in my goals for this year but I just want to play really good football and at some stage be considered.
“To play for the Blues would be a whole new beast. I’d love to be able to do that and play Queensland. But I just want to nail my club football. I want to have a strong start and be able to hold that through the year.
“[Ennis] is still coming in once a week. He’s in my ear, same thing as last year. Last year during the year I didn’t do too many kicks but when I did they were within 10 metres of the line, real short range. This year I want to do more maybe a little bit further out, aim for 40/20s if I can. Add some more things to my game.”
The Sharks fell short of their lofty expectations last season with the reigning premiers finding it difficult to get going for much of the campaign before their controversial exit in week one of the finals.
While they have lost a handful of players, most notably premiership winners Jack Bird (Brisbane), James Maloney (Penrith), Gerard Beale (New Zealand) and Chris Heighington (Newcastle), Cronulla have also managed to add some top quality to their squad.
The additions of representative stars Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan, along with Cronulla’s existing cavalcade of stars – Valentine Holmes, Graham, Gallen, Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita among them – have made Brailey excited to get back to work, and chase a second premiership for the black, white and blue in three seasons.
“I’m really excited by the players we’ve got here,” he said.
“Today was the first day Moylan has been running against opposition. Just watching him he looks dangerous, I’m happy he’s on our team.
“We’ve got Ava [Seumanufagai] as well, Braden Uele from the Cowboys is enormous. We’ve got some really good players coming in and we can definitely do some damage. We’ve got the squad to definitely be there at the end of the year. I’m really excited about it.”