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George Smith farewells Australian rugby after dominating game since under-8s

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Even at under-8s level, people were talking about George Smith.

On Sydney's Northern Beaches, the young Smith was dominating junior-age rugby and forging a path that, almost 30 years later, would see him bow out of the Australian game as a Wallabies great and a player who inspired a generation of No. 7s Down Under.

A mentor for Smith as he worked his way up through the age groups, former Manly Marlins President Ian MacDonald knew he was involved with somebody special.

"I coached him, I had a junior side called the Manly Vikings," MacDonald tells ESPN. "From about 14 years of age or maybe earlier, he was in my team. But I was his coach from 14s through to colts, and I had him in colts in the Under 19s as well. I spent maybe five or six years as George's coach but I guess in those days I was his mentor as well.

"What I first noticed about him was that when I was coaching other junior sides, when he was much younger and he was running around in the local under 8s and under 9s, people would often come to you and say 'come and have a look at this little guy'. He was only a little bloke but he was running around scoring tries.

"Clearly from a very early age: 8, 9, 10; he had developed skills in rugby that other kids hadn't even thought of and he'd developed those skills because he was a natural; he has natural ability."

Back in his junior days, Smith wore a different number on his jersey. Not that it made much difference, he just ran rings around the other kids from hooker instead.

"He was interesting because I played him at hooker, he was hooker in my teams the whole time because he was a small guy; he was going to be either halfback or hooker," MacDonald says.

"He was in my Under 19s when he was picked to play for the NSW Under 19s as a breakaway and that was his first stint then as breakaway; I played him as a hooker the whole time.

"He played a lot of league as junior as well, and league were very interested in him. But I don't think he got his skills from league; George Smith was an absolute natural...he's not a rocket scientist but his rugby skills are second to none.

"There wouldn't be a smarter player, probably still running around, the fact that he's 37 and can still get around a football ground shows you how he knows how to pace himself in a game. And he's just got those skills and, quite frankly, there aren't many players in the world that have been like that or who will be like that in the future."

After seemingly treating Smith with outrageously-good fortune for much of his career, the 37-year-old's body caught up with him earlier this week when he was ruled out of an Australian farewell with Queensland Reds.

A knee injury suffered against the Blues a fortnight ago has denied Smith the chance to bow out at Suncorp Stadium against the Sunwolves on Friday, one day short of his 38th birthday.

While his last Super Rugby game will have been in a Reds jersey, it's the Brumbies where his provincial legacy is at its greatest. Along with the 10 Player's Player Awards, Smith was a key cog in the title-winning teams of 2001 and 2004.

But it could have so easily been different had the Waratahs, who had skipper and Smith's long-time rival Phil Waugh on their books, realised Smith's talent when he originally trialled with NSW before heading south to Canberra.

"He picked up a Brumbies contract from our first-grade colts and he did that because we sent him down, as the Manly Rugby Club, we sent him down as a club to the Waratahs and they told him as an up-and-coming breakaway he'd be about fourth cab off the rank," MacDonald tells ESPN.

"And the President of the Manly Rugby Club, who was my assistant coach, we had a mate at Canberra, Rob Clarke, who was the then-executive director of the Brumbies, and we asked Clarkey to have a look at him and he gave him a contract. The rest was history.

"So NSW passed him up, they thought he was only the fourth up-and-coming breakaway that was running around. But we knew how good he was from when he started to play breakaway in the colts. And the Brumbies picked him, and those unique skills, the scavenging type of skills would have been developed through the Brumbies and probably through the nature of which rugby was played in those days."

While Smith was at the core of rugby's breakdown revolution, MacDonald says it's his ability to read a game that has set him apart, right from his early years in junior footy through to the absolute heights of Test rugby.

"Georgie's longevity, the reason he's had such longevity, is his ability to read a game," MacDonald says. "He's not a player who just thinks he has to run out and bash the living daylights out of every person they see; Georgie plays the game with skill. He knows when to run into the big guys and he knows when not to run into the big guys, and that really has been the reason behind his longevity."

The plaudits have come from across the game this week; former teammates, coaches and fans alike have spoken out in fondness of what Smith has done for the game in Australia.

Rugby Union Players Association boss Ross Xenos told ESPN: "George's achievements and career as a professional Rugby player in Australia are unrivalled. He's a two-time John Eales Medal winner, one of just eight Wallaby centurions, the second highest capped Australian Super Rugby player ever and a two-time Super Rugby champion.

"On top of that, he is universally respected by his peers past and present. He has twice been voted the winner of the RUPA Medal for Excellence and won the Brumbies Players' Player of the Year award 10 times. He was the Reds' Players' Player of the Year award in 2017, and even the Rugby Players' Association (UK) Players' Player of the Year award in 2016.

"Such recognition is no coincidence, it is truly a reflection of his broader influence on every team he has been a part of. To command the respect of his fellow players, not only for the way he plays the game but also the manner in which he holds himself off the field, is a true tribute to his character."

Smith's career will continue for a little while yet with the Wallabies great signed to Bristol Bears on a short-term deal for next year's English Premiership.

He's likely to be a sought after commodity once the boots are hung for good, potentially at the Reds where coach Brad Thorn has already had him working with the franchise's promising array of back-row talent.

MacDonald is adamant Smith's knowledge be retained in Australia, describing him as "too valuable a piece of property to not be kept in the game in some way."

Denied one last chance to watch the master at work, many Australian rugby supporters will remember Smith's performance in the 2004 Super 12 final in which he led a first-half rout of the Crusaders or any number of man-of-match-performances in Wallabies gold.

For MacDonald, though, the lasting memory of his most famous former charge came at a humble suburban ground.

"Manly played in the first-grade colts semifinal against Eastwood at Woollahra Oval back in about 1999 and George had just got a contract with the Brumbies from colts," MacDonald says "We were minor premiers and Eastwood were a strong side in the colts and that day at Woollahra Oval we beat them by about 40 points and George just dominated the game.

"He was a young guy and you can imagine a young guy who's got a Super Rugby contract and he just dominated that game. So from a personal point-of-view that's the game I remember the most, but I'm sure he's had many fine games since then. I know he has."