The old adage says that leaders are born, not made. But in rugby league, if somebody sticks around the same team for long enough they, by default, become something of an elder statesman, even if they don’t really seem suited to it.
That’s how Cameron Munster and Anthony Milford, who are just 27, have ended up as senior men for Queensland and Samoa. They still seem younger than their years, but this is what growing up must feel like.
Munster will not captain the Maroons over in Perth on Sunday, but he doesn’t need to have the skipper’s armband to be the heartbeat of his state. Daly Cherry-Evans might be Queensland captain, but Munster is Queensland’s heart and soul.
Over the past three years, the same pattern has repeated itself. When Munster attacks the game, really goes after it, and does all the things that only he can do, then Queensland wins. When he doesn’t, they lose.
Like the best of the Maroons, Munster is becoming less of a footballer and more of a folk hero with every passing series.
It’s why he’s on the fast track to join the Maroons pantheon, and why his state is always in with a chance whenever he’s on the field, no matter how lost the cause may seem.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Milford seemed destined to be like that.
In fact, he was meant to be like that before most of us had heard the name Cameron Munster. Nine seasons into his NRL career, Milford was not supposed to be a walk-up start for Samoa in their clash with the Cook Islands in Campbelltown, he was supposed be in Maroon in Perth.
During his first years in the NRL with the Raiders and his initial stint with Brisbane, Milford was a remarkable talent, not in the hustling, desperate way Munster is, where he will do anything and everything to chase victory — Milford played with a smooth, easy grace that made everything look easy.
He did not chase games, as Munster does, because he didn’t need to. They came to him. Everything came to him.
That style doesn’t always age so well, and it can be maddening when it stops working, but when it all came together it was the kind of football you dream about.
In the early days it was Milford, not Munster who was chosen for greatness. It was Milford who was pressured to leave Samoa aside so he could captain Queensland’s under-20s as the jewel of the young Maroons while Munster sat on the bench and hoped for the best.
Milford was the sure thing and Munster was the maybe, and everything that has happened to Munster since then was supposed to happen to Milford.
It was Milford who was forced to make the difficult choice between state and country, Milford who was rushed into Emerging Maroons squads because his progression to Origin was not just certain but awaited, Milford who was the best player in a grand final at just 21 and it was Milford who was handed a million-dollar contract with Brisbane, a poisoned chalice if there ever was one.
Milford is only a few months older than Munster, but it feels like his story is beginning to wind up while Munster’s is still just beginning.
The glorious Queensland career that many predicted for Milford has amounted to just two matches – one where he was concussed 50 minutes into his debut, a game Queensland lost 28-4 on home soil in Origin I of the 2017 series, and a short bench cameo a year later.
That was it and barring a mighty resurrection, that will be it because even though Milford’s first few years with Brisbane were glorious, things soured quicker than anybody would have liked.
Both club and player must bear some of the blame for why his million-dollar contract went from a good deal to an infamous one.
The Broncos never really gave him a halfback that complemented his skill set and he didn’t really have one at all after Ben Hunt left. Milford probably didn’t keep himself as sharp or engaged as he could have done.
But why things fell apart doesn’t really matter anymore. His hefty salary ensured the topic was litigated time and again, and there’s no need to raise it all again.
What matters is that once he did finally hit the bricks last year, his departure was a blessing for both player and club.
And what is left for Milford? Right now he’s in the midst of half-a-season cameo at the Knights before a probable reunification with Wayne Bennett at the Dolphins, where the super coach will try to work his magic on a player who is still capable, still competent, but far from the force of nature he seemed to be.
He used to be unique – that means there was nobody like him. Now he’s just another one of the guys.
Dial up some highlights if you have to, so you can remember how Milford used to be, how he could run and how he could step and how he would take the ball with the game on the line without fear, with nothing but footballing brilliance on his mind and joy in his heart.
Describing it does not do it justice. You have to see it to understand. But that feels long ago now, and far away. He is 27, and it feels like it’s almost over.
Munster has already done so much, but there can be so much more for him to do.
He debuted in Origin just two matches after Milford and in hindsight, that is when their paths crossed.
Ever since then, Milford has sunk while Munster has risen again and again, with no sign of slowing down.
In a Queensland jersey there was no false start for Munster as there was for Milford – the Storm star was almost man of the match in 2017 decider, and hasn’t missed a game since.
He was the Maroons’ best player when the worst Queensland team ever shocked the world in 2020, and if they win the series again this season he’s odds-on to join Billy Slater and Cameron Smith as the only players to claim the Wally Lewis Medal as player of the series more than once.
Munster might be the best rugby league player in the world. Certainly, he’s the best big-game player, the one who can rise to the occasion like nobody else. If he stays with Melbourne, he will be the cornerstone of the next phase of their run of success, the heir to the legacy left behind by Cameron Smith and Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
If Munster leaves and goes to Brisbane or the Dolphins or wherever, it will likely coincide with him becoming the highest-paid player in rugby league history. He is 27, and it feels like there is so much yet to come.
Not all players are created equal and neither are their careers. For one star to rise, often another must fall. There is only room in each generation for so many legends, because the spotlight is only so wide.
Both guys were and are so talented, both guys worked hard, both guys had good teammates and good coaches and good situations, it’s just there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and you never know when a maybe can or will turn into certainties.
That’s how we end up wondering if Cameron Munster can put an entire state on his shoulder yet again while wondering why it never happened for Anthony Milford in a Maroon jersey the way that Queenslanders might have hoped.
Milford has accomplished plenty and what’s happened to him is far from a tragedy – it’s just the way it goes sometimes. But as Munster shows, sometimes it goes the other way too.