IT WOULD BE HARD

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

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