Given Brandon Smith was called into the New Zealand squad before he had played an NRL game, his rapid rise to Test honours after he became a Melbourne Storm regular was hardly surprising.
Waiheke Island born-and-bred, Smith moved to Townsville after older brother Dylan secured an under-20s contract with North Queensland. Brandon attended Kirwan State High School and eventually progressed to the Cowboys’ NYC ranks himself, scoring 30 tries in 44 games in 2015-16. He represented the Junior Kiwis and was named at hooker in the NYC Team of the Year in 2016.
Smith was snapped up by the Storm, who earmarked him as a potential successor to legendary No.9 Cameron Smith. The 20-year-old caused a stir by being selected in the Kiwis’ 20-man Anzac Test squad in 2017, though he was not named in the final 17. An NRL debut soon followed, coming off the bench three times for Melbourne during the taxing representative period and scoring two tries.
Stocky and powerful with excellent speed out of dummy-half, Smith’s skill-set was easily transferrable to the back-row and he became a permanent fixture on the defending premiers’ bench. After 18 top-grade appearances in 2018 (but only one start) and a grand final runner-up medal following the Storm’s loss to the Roosters, he was chosen at hooker for New Zealand’s post-season clash with Australia in Auckland.
Smith produced one of the most memorable of all Kiwi Test debuts. He powered over for a second-half try and was narrowly denied another by the video referee that would have sealed the result, before the hosts held on for a nail-biting 26-24 victory – the Kiwis’ first over the Kangaroos in four years. Smith’s energy, determination and passionate celebrations were just as eye-catching as his ability to get over the try-line, while his tearful post-match embrace with family was one of the most enduring images of a momentous night.
The dynamic tyro subsequently wore the No.9 jersey in all three Tests on the Kiwis’ tour of England, while he featured for the Māori All Stars in their historic clash with the Indigenous All Stars during the 2019 pre-season.
Though his path to a spot in the Storm’s starting line-up was blocked by Cameron Smith and rep back-rowers Felise Kaufusi, Kenny Bromwich and Dale Finucane, Brandon Smith became an increasingly integral part of Craig Bellamy’s game-plan and he racked up 23 first-grade games in 2019.
Smith was one of the standouts of the Kiwis’ 34-14 mid-season defeat of Mate Ma’a Tonga. He scored a sensational 30-metre solo try from dummy-half to open the scoring and made another barnstorming break before kicking ahead for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to dot down for the first try of the second half, finishing with 127 running metres, 10 tackle-breaks and 40 tackles in a mighty all-round display.
The 23-year-old was well-contained in the Kiwis’ 26-4 post-season loss to the Kangaroos in Wollongong, while he was a late scratching from the first Test against Great Britain at Eden Park after breaching team protocol. But Smith was reinstated at hooker for the second Test in Christchurch and was typically industrious in a 23-8 win.
Smith started 2020 in scorching form, scoring two late tries in a man-of-the-match performance for Māori All Stars in their 30-16 win over Indigenous All Stars on the Gold Coast.
Featuring at prop, hooker and off the bench for Melbourne, Smith – nicknamed ‘Hectic Cheese’ and rapidly becoming one of the NRL’s genuine personality players – collected a premiership ring following the Storm’s grand final victory over Penrith Panthers.
Following Cameron Smith’s retirement, the 25-year-old warded off the challenge of brilliant youngster Harry Grant for the Storm’s No.9 jersey and played a career-high 24 games in 2021. He scored 12 tries and got over the stripe in eight consecutive games during a remarkable mid-season streak, starting games at hooker before shifting to a running forward role when Grant entered the fray off the bench.
Smith was named in the Kiwis’ wider squad for the 2022 World Cup and collected the Dally M Hooker of the Year award after Melbourne bowed out in the preliminary final against Penrith, with the Storm’s cause hindered by their influential dummy-half’s early HIA exit.