IT WOULD BE HARD
for anyone not to find Ben Smith’s story inspiring. That he’s been able to become the All Blacks vice-captain and one of the most respected players in world rugby is testament to his patience, character and resilience.
There are so many good things about Smith that it’s hard to know where to begin. Probably the best place is to go right back to the start of his international journey, which had such an inauspicious beginning.
Perhaps it was indicative of his lack of self-belief that Smith’s first touch in international rugby was a shocker. He was a genuine bolter in the All Blacks squad that toured Japan and Europe at the end of 2009.
He’d played Super Rugby that year but not many people had noticed. A fair few more noted how good he was in provincial rugby later that year, but the All Blacks coaches still pulled a surprise when they named Smith in their 34-man tour party.
That first touch of his came at the San Siro Stadium in Milan. It was the third game of the tour and Smith was on the right wing. A high ball came his way in the first minute and who would believe it, given how good Smith is in the air, he dropped it. Knock-on, scrum Italy and however fragile his confidence may have been before the game, it was knocked further by that.
He recovered, though, and went on to play quite well in what was actually an awful test. Not well enough, however, to play again on that trip and it would seem now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the 2009 tour confirmed in Smith’s mind that he was an experiment. A one-off.
He’s admitted that he didn’t believe he deserved to be there and it looked like it. It was a frustrating process for the coaches who could only say so many times that they hadn’t given him a cap out of pity. They hadn’t taken a wild punt on him.
They had seen his talent, realised his potential and were convinced he was a test quality player. But try as they might, they couldn’t get Smith to buy that vision of himself.
It took until 2012 for that to start happening. That was the year that Smith finally started to realise what he could do in an All Blacks shirt. He was used all year off the bench and every time he came on, he made an impression.
The more he played, the more it looked like he was probably being under used.
His lucky break came the following year when Cory Jane was ruled out for the year and a starting spot on the right wing was freed up. That was when it all really started to make sense for Smith.
He found his confidence and with that, he was able to play with freedom and spontaneity. He was able to trust his instincts and commit to everything he did. It created a virtuous cycle where the better he played, the more confident he became and so on to the point where he was short listed as a World Player of the Year in 2013.
He’s only got better since then. From being a player who thought he was lucky to be there, now everyone knows it is the other way around: New Zealand is lucky to have him.
And New Zealand perhaps owes a little debt of gratitude to the coaching team of Steve Hansen and Ian Foster who were talking about Smith’s potential long before he fulfilled it.
In 2012, Hansen and Foster told the New Zealand Rugby Union to throw everything they could to keep Smith in the country. They feared he was going to go offshore and at that stage, given he’d not shown too much on the international stage, NZR could have been forgiven if they had only made him a modest counter-offer.
But on Hansen’s recommendation they pushed the boat out and that bravery has been rewarded. New Zealand have benefited on two fronts.
The first is that they have in their midst a player who has become one of the best outside backs the All Blacks have produced in the professional era. Maybe even the best outside back of that period.
Smith has the X-factor of Christian Cullen and that same ability to spark something out of nothing. Yet he’s also got impeccable aerial skills. He’s a decent first receiver, too, and he can effortlessly and brilliantly play on the wing and he’s shown, cover centre and second-five. Not just cover either, he’s started tests at centre and the All Blacks would start him at No 12 as well if they had to.
He’s more than just an inspirational player, though. Smith has become a trusted and astute leader who reads the game well and makes good decisions. He’s a footballer who is permanently calm and composed and barring injury, he’s going to be a critical part of the machine from now until 2019.
Hard work, dedication and perseverance have got him there and shown once again how it is those qualities that define greatness and not talent alone.