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It is a classic Canberra morning on the shores of Lake Burley-Griffin; brilliant sunshine illuminates the sky, yet there is enough chill to keep women?s nipples firm and erect. I?m enjoying breakfast waiting for my interviewee to arrive.
In the distance I see an instantly recognisable figure. Solid but athletic, his spiky grey hair glistens in the sunshine like the sole natural snowflake at Perisher. With a characteristic swagger and confident air, he is unmistakeable.
It is Jason Smith.
He is so different to the other interviewees. The week beforehand, Clinton Schifcofske arrived in stonewashed jeans and a white t-shirt, accentuating his effortless good looks. Sunglasses possibly masked a massive night where he must have hopped from one nightclub to, well, the other one. Todd Carney arrived with spiked hair, no less than six sweatbands on his forearms (obviously masking some profuse perspiration problem) and designer boxers emerging from dangerously low shorts.
Jason provided such a contrast to that over-rated look. In flannelette and no-nonsense blue denim, he struck an incongruent juxtaposition; in the artificial surrounds of Canberra, Jason Smith was so real.
I rise and he grabs my hand, possibly breaking a finger with his vice-like grip. With a Winfield Red dangling from his lips, he motions towards outside. ?We?ll sit over there,? he croaks, ?and don?t bring that crap with you,? referring to my toasted focaccia. ?I wouldn?t feed that nancy garbage to my dog.?
Now with a T-bone for breakfast (despite my pleadings that a cow didn?t deserve to die so early in the day), Jason relaxes. He takes a long, soothing drag on ?Winnie,? his exhale slow and fulfilling. He smokes just like he plays, I thought. Never in a rush, always with so much time. No longer hungry, I move to the first question of the morning.
?So Jason, how did you enjoy your first season back in the NRL??
My question draws a blank response, yet there is a latent anger. His seemingly emotionless face is filled with disdain. It is the same look Matt Gafa received when he misread the play ? he can?t tolerate fools.
?Mate, how do you think I enjoyed it? We ran second last and broke the clubs? biggest losing streak twice. Had a friggin? ball.?
I was stunned by his truthful severity. Here was a man who could have filled my morning with clich?, yet he chose not to. Intrigued, I pressed on, feeling much like his team-mates ? I had no idea what was coming next.
?You?re 34 and played most of 2005 with injury, and you?re going round again. How are you so tough??
Like his magical on-field ability, he quickens the pace. ?Mate I?m not tough. I earn a good clip playing footy. It?s not tough. Being a labourer, a cop ? that?s tough.?
I nod agreeingly, now in more awe of the man. In his self-deprecating style, he proved how tough he was instantly. He finishes a vegemite soldier and adds,
?Plus the money?s good ? why wouldn?t I sign on again.?
I laugh, and the tension hanging over us like a Canberra fog is lifted. He cracks a weary smile, and I am accepted. The interview has just begun.
Like Lincoln Withers, I am the link-man while Jason runs the show. There are no questions, just conversation over breakfast between a poor journalist and a footballing legend. A quick glance to his watch ends our meeting; he probably has a sponsor?s commitment to attend or teaching Adam Mogg to tackle. I put a final question to him.
?Jason, what odds you take Canberra to a premiership in 2006??
He smiles and grabs my trembling hand. ?Mate, I won?t be taking the Raiders to a title ? I?m past it. The kids here will win you one, no sweat. I?m just here to help ?em along a bit, win the odd game or two.?
His honesty shocks me, yet his truth speaks volumes. He is the teacher of the clubs? future, not the man to pin hopes on. With Matt Elliott leaving, I throw him a final question:
?Why don?t you become our coach when you?re finished??
He turns, winks in a completely non-sexual fashion, and walks away. ?In a way mate, I already am.?
I smile; he nods understandingly. I depart ecstatic, knowing that the future of the Raiders is in unconventional, yet safe hands.