Ponissi addressed the board on Tuesday, assuring them the situation surrounding Smith — and the impact of his decision on the futures of young hookers Brandon Smith and Harry Grant — had not been destabilising.
“The board, given our current situation, wants to know how we’re getting on up here, and they asked about the effect of the pressure on Cameron and the uncertainty around the group,” Ponissi told the Herald from the team’s temporary base on the Sunshine Coast.
“I reassured them there are absolutely no problems at all. There’s no distraction on the group. This is the closest group I’ve seen at the Storm in the past 13 years. The way they are playing on the weekend shows that.”
Ponissi also assured the board the uncertainty would not cost the club Grant or Brandon Smith. Both players are contracted until the end of 2022, although Grant has a release clause if Cameron Smith stays at the club next year.
On loan to the Wests Tigers, Grant has phoned his long-time mentor throughout the season asking for advice about his game.
“We’re like every other club — the earlier you know things the better,” said Ponissi who, along with coach Craig Bellamy, is in charge of the club’s salary cap. “But we’ve overcome greater challenges than this.”
He’s referring to the 2010 salary-cap scandal that forced Melbourne to shed 15 players to ensure it was compliant for the 2011 season.
“We were $1 million over the cap — that’s challenging,” Ponissi recalled. “Waiting on Cameron Smith to make up his mind is not perfect, but putting together a team from scratch after the salary cap has blown up your list, that’s not comparable. As Craig has said, in comparison to the issues we had 10 years ago, this is a walk along the beach.
“It’s a nice headache to have. We have three world-class hookers. Two of those players have contracts for next year and beyond. Ideally, it would be great to know what is happening. But if Cameron does play, we will deal with it like we have with every issue we have in the past.”
There was a strong belief Smith may have made a call on his future early this week following his return against Manly on Sunday from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for three weeks.
Tuesday’s board meeting was expected to bring further clarity but, following Ponissi’s comments, that doesn’t seem likely.
Because of the respect they have for each other, Smith and Bellamy haven’t had serious discussions about the matter.
The Storm, though, have felt this season will be his last for them because Smith’s young family has relocated to the Gold Coast due to the COVID-19 isolation restrictions that have locked down Melbourne.
Smith was hoping to make a decision a month ago but is still weighing up several factors. If he does play on, it would likely be at the Broncos or Titans.
Perhaps most telling is that his 37-year-old body isn’t indicating it’s time to finish. He has played 19 seasons at the Storm and is the most-capped player in NRL history with 424 appearances.
Ever-protective of the Storm playing group, Ponissi said the criticism levelled at Smith hadn’t pierced the team bubble at the Twin Waters resort.
“We’re living in a bubble and nothing is getting in,” he said. “It’s a very tight-knit group and all this stuff about ‘will he play, won’t he play?’ is bouncing off the bubble.”
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.