Queensland coach Mal Meninga says Cameron Smith “deserves respect” ahead of his milestone match, but has refused to weigh into the debate over Alex McKinnon’s criticism of his Maroons captain.
Smith had been expected to soak up the limelight ahead of Wednesday night’s State of Origin decider in Brisbane.
It will mark his 36th Origin – equalling Queensland great Darren Lockyer’s overall games played record.
However, Smith’s landmark match has almost become an afterthought after McKinnon took aim on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program on Sunday night.
Ex-Newcastle forward McKinnon was upset over on-field comments Melbourne’s Smith made following the tackle that ended his NRL career in March last year.
McKinnon told the program he believed Smith had implied that the Knights forward had been somewhat to blame for a spinal injury suffered in a three-man tackle.
Meninga joined the growing chorus of support for Smith but did not want to weigh into the “no win situation”, saying the team wanted to put the issue behind them.
“I have a private opinion but I don’t want to air that publicly,” he said.
“But what everyone has been saying I concur with – Cameron is a decent human being.
“He is a respected member of the rugby league fraternity and deserves some respect.
“But you can’t win by making any kind of comment.”
Backrower Corey Parker had earlier revealed the team had rallied around Smith since the 60 Minutes program.
But Meninga insisted no one had been distracted ahead of a must win Origin III.
“It hasn’t impacted on the way we have prepared,” he said.
“You are referring obviously to what was portrayed on Sunday night.
“It’s a no win situation. We have to make sure we put that behind us and move forward.
“We have come to Brisbane as a team and are prepared to do whatever it takes to be successful on Wednesday night.”
Former Test half Matthew Johns and premiership winning playmaker Greg Alexander have both publicly backed Smith since the program.
Johns described the hooker as a “man of integrity”.
“I think later on when he realised the severity of Alex’s injury he would have been immensely regretful (of his on-field complaints),” Johns told Fox Sports.
Alexander slammed 60 Minutes for an “unbalanced” report that did not offer Smith a right of reply.
It emerged Smith on Tuesday declined an offer by the Nine Network to respond to McKinnon’s comments.
Such is the fallout over the program, Meninga almost left on Tuesday without commenting on Smith’s Origin achievement.
“He’s right up there in the Origin legacy,” he said.
“Thirty-six games. That is 12 years of playing at this level – it is extraordinary.”
Meninga also paid tribute to 33-year-old centre Justin Hodges who will play his 24th and final Origin for Queensland since his 2002 debut.
“He is a great ambassador but also one of the best centres who has played the game,” said ex-centre Meninga.