Ben Smith is the most unassuming of blokes with the most dazzling of repertoires, writes MARC HINTON.
The All Blacks have a sort of tradition when somebody plays a Test like Ben Smith did in Dunedin against the touring England side in June. That individual gets fairly mercilessly prodded, ribbed and reminded that despite the heroics, never mind the headlines, he’s still just one of the boys. It’s their way of bringing people back down to earth after the heady heights of a star turn in the black jersey.
Except, as chirpy halfback Aaron Smith – a teammate at the Highlanders and All Blacks – was happy to remind us, they didn’t have to bother with the fabulously in-form 28-year-old from Dunedin. Ben Smith – no relation – is such a grounded, team-first type that they would have been wasting their collective breath. No need to clip someone’s ego when they don’t have one in the first place.
‘You can’t bring him down because he doesn’t give you any let-ins. He’s so humble,’ he observes.
As if to prove his mate’s assertion, Ben Smith looked decidedly quizzical when asked about his mindset following a performance like he’d managed under the roof of Otago Stadium. It was no stretch to say he was the difference on that night, making one remarkable defensive play just before half-time that turned the match, and series, on its head, and doing everything else with a mix of efficiency, excitement and excellence.
‘Sometimes you guys give me a bit too much credit,’ responds Smith in one of the more unlikely lines to be uttered by a professional sportsman.
‘There are a couple of things in my game I need to improve – there were times I could have drawn and passed a bit better, there was a kick I shanked, and a ball dropped when the line was sort of open. There are a few things I need to improve, so I’m just working on those areas and trying to get better.’
Is he kidding? Smith produced a personal tour de force in a Dunedin Test that carried major permutations. It was his first start at his preferred position of fullback – 28 internationals into his career – fittingly coming on his home track, and was his chance to lay down a marker for coach Steve Hansen. Last year he had been used to plug gaps on the right wing and at outside centre, and had responded magnificently. But we’d all wondered what he might be capable of in the No 15 jersey, where he plies his trade for the Highlanders.
Something special, was the answer. That defensive play in Dunedin just before the break was his signature moment. Hulking English centre-turned-wing Manu Tuilagi had looked set to put the tourists in a powerful position when, leading 10-3, he scooped up Cory Jane’s spilled ball and hared up the right touchline in what appeared a solo race to the line.
But on the angle, like an Exocet missile locked in on its target, came Ben Smith to not only run down big Manusamoa just shy of the line, but in one motion get back to his feet, play the ball, and win a relieving penalty. It was, noted Hansen afterwards, a game-changer. But really just one of a number of big plays, including finishing a sweeping 80m movement upfield as the All Blacks took charge in the third quarter, the talented fullback made on a big night on his home track.
‘His move to fullback was sensational’ – Steve Hansen
But this is Ben Smith. Consistency is his middle name (actually it’s Robert, but bear with us). So there he was again a week later in Hamilton, back at fullback (Israel Dagg missed the last two Tests with patella tendon troubles) and back leaving his imprint all over his team’s best showing of the series. Whether it was high takes, crisp passes, kick-chases, quick throws or slice-and-dice runs, whatever he did, Smith did so well Hansen labelled him his player of the series.
‘His move to fullback was sensational,’ said Hansen. ‘We always felt he was going to be good there but just hadn’t had an opportunity to play him there with Israel playing so well and having one or two problems on the wing. He’s come in and just continued his good form at fullback, and that will put a bit of pressure now on Izzy.’
For his part, the man they call ‘Bender’ was taking it all in his stride. It’s what he does.
‘I enjoy my rugby,’ says a fellow who’s barely put a foot wrong the past couple of seasons. ‘I enjoy wearing the black jersey, and when you put it on, it’s about always trying to get better. Sometimes that means looking at what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong and trying to fix those things that didn’t go well and working on the things that work well for you.’
One man not surprised by anything his namesake does on a rugby field is Aaron Smith.
‘It’s Bender, mate. I’ve seen it for a few years down at the Highlanders. He’s a special man, so humble – one of those guys you just go “watch out, what’s this guy going to do?” I’ve played enough with him to see when there’s a bounce of a ball, it always goes to him. It’s freaky.’ Freakishly good on the rugby field; unassumingly ordinary off it. That’s Ben Smith. In the form of his life, and telling no one about it.
DAGG vs SMITH
It will be one of the defining calls Steve Hansen has to make in the Rugby Championship. When everybody’s fit, who is his first-choice fullback?
Israel Dagg has a challenger and it’s a fellow in a rich vein of form. Some are predicting the unthinkable could be about to happen and Dagg could miss out on a starting All Blacks XV when he’s fit.
It’s been a situation brewing with the rise and rise and rise of Ben Smith over the past three seasons. Hansen circumvented it last year by picking Smith as his right wing in the absence of Cory Jane, and then as a fill-in centre when Conrad Smith – senior partner in the backline firm of Smith, Smith and Smith – went on sabbatical.
Both played in the opening Test of the year, but when Dagg pulled out of the rest of the England series with knee problems, Smith moved to fullback with stunning success. Now the drumbeats are sounding that the form No 15 in the New Zealand domestic game deserves to play there for his country.
It’s a conundrum for Hansen because Dagg has been a model fullback ever since succeeding Mils Muliaina at the 2011 World Cup. And All Blacks coaches are incredibly loyal to men who deliver for them.
But even Hansen is starting to admit Smith’s form at No 15 can no longer be ignored. The answer may come as early as the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship opener in Sydney on 16 August if Dagg is over his knee issues.
One man will be pushed possibly to the wing, possibly to the reserves, possibly left out. Most Kiwi pundits now expect that to be Dagg.
– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine