Hookers Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis symbolise the teams they play for and will go a long way to deciding tonight’s NRL grand final, writes Michael Burgess.

Cameron Smith

No player in the NRL has come to define their team more than Cameron Smith.
Now in his 15th season at the Storm, Smith epitomises the Melbourne franchise. He's smart, ultra-professional and highly skilled. He rarely makes mistakes, is a ruthless competitor and plays to the edge of the rules, but is usually clever enough to avoid heavy sanction.
Smith is - surely - the best hooker in the history of the sport. The 33-year-old is also one of the most influential players league has ever seen, the single greatest reason for the dominance of the Storm, Queensland and Kangaroos over the last decade. He's the all-Australian boy, a media darling and the ultimate diplomat.

But Smith also has a dark side. A bit like Richie McCaw, the rules seem to change when he is on the field.

Look back at last week's game against the Raiders - there's Smith midway through the second half, a swinging arm connecting with Joseph Tapine's head. The Canberra second-rower leaves the field concussed, while Smith's act goes unpunished by officials and barely noted by television commentators.


Earlier in the first half, as he rushes in to celebrate Cooper Cronk's try, Smith's knee slams into the back of Jarrod Croker's knee. Accident? Maybe, but everyone in the stadium knew the Raiders' captain was carrying a serious knee injury. There were other instances of holding down in the ruck, or hanging on to a tackler to push for a penalty.

He's been at the helm of a Storm side who will always be admired but never loved due to their questionable tactics. Sure, they have rewritten the defensive playbook and refined tactical kicking to an art form, but the Storm have also introduced the grapple tackle, the 'chicken wing', wrestling in the ruck and numerous other blights on the sport.

If that's the sour side, the sweet part is Smith's game management, his ice-cool temperament under pressure, his strategic appreciation and the ability to think several plays ahead.

Smith has also stayed at the top for a remarkably long period, managing several different generations of Storm cubs to success, and even pre-dates coach Craig Bellamy. Smith played his first NRL match in 2002, made his Origin debut a year later and was an Australian regular by 2006. He's played 334 first grade games (winning almost 70 per cent), won 10 Origin series and was undefeated for almost four years as Australian captain.

Today will be his sixth grand final in the space of a decade and the Storm have been close to a couple more. Smith is the ultimate modern-day footballer: the slightly-built hooker may have what has been described as the body of an accountant (1.85m, 92 kg) but he has the brain of a chess master and ruthless streak of a UFC fighter.

Michael Ennis

Whatever you might think of Michael Ennis, you have to admire him. He is one of the most reviled players in the game but has made the most of his talents.
Ennis, who will be at the forefront of the Sharks' effort in today's grand final, is not particularly quick or athletic. He doesn't have a big sidestep, a swerve, or a bullet pass. He's also on the small side for a No 9 at 1.78m and 87kg.

He's got no real right to be massively successful in the NRL but he's found a way to be effective, across five clubs, 272 games and 14 seasons. Ennis looked on the scrap heap a few years ago, when the Bulldogs dispensed with his services for a younger model. But he has reinvented himself at the Sharks, spearheading their rise from 2014 wooden spooners to the grand final.

Cronulla has been a perfect fit for the 32-year-old. It's a team full of tough nuts, like Luke Lewis, Paul Gallen, Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita, who rely as much on intimidation as inventiveness. They've become popular in 2016 - with most neutrals willing the fairytale as they attempt to break a 50-year duck - but in any other situation their grinding, gritty approach would win few admirers.

Ennis is the arch villain at Shark Park. He's a niggly player who takes gamesmanship to new levels, willing to do anything to get an advantage. Throughout his career he's been one of the most penalised players in the NRL and he's an expert at getting under the skin of opponents and disrupting their focus, infamously patting Cameron Smith on the head after the Storm hooker made a crucial error in an elimination final match in 2014.

"That's just Mickey," said Smith on Thursday at the official grand final press conference. "That's part of the role he plays in the teams he plays for. I've played many games against Mick. He's a competitor. He tries to do the best for his team and that's to win."

Ennis also doesn't do humble. After scooting over from dummy half against the Warriors this year, he celebrated like it was the try of the season, running wildly around the in-goal area and then taking selfies with the Sharks fans in the grandstand.

But he deserves our grudging respect. After time with the Knights and Dragons, Ennis made an impact at the Broncos between 2006 and 2008, although injury disrupted his time at Brisbane. He was part of a fearsome Bulldogs pack for six seasons and dislodged Robbie Farah to represent NSW on eight occasions.

He's a whole-hearted competitor with, in true Aussie parlance, a heart the size of Ayers Rock, and it's no accident the Sharks' rise over the last two seasons has coincided with his arrival in the Shire.

Ennis plays his last NRL match today and, like Royce Simmons 25 years ago, hopes to go out a happy hooker on the biggest stage of all. It might be an unlikely prospect, but Ennis will be fighting the odds, like he has done his whole career.