23 Conrad Smith [2004-2015] CAPS 94
Conrad Smith bucked the trend in many ways. His first point of difference was that he made it to the All Blacks without coming through the traditional agegrade pathway.
The system missed him. He went through Francis Douglas Memorial College in Taranaki without making it to any representative teams.
When he came to Wellington in 2000, it was to study law because he was determined to become a lawyer. He played club rugby but not with the ambition he’d become an All Black.
Rugby was for fun, study was for keeps. That was until things changed in 2003.
With Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu at the World Cup, Wellington suffered a few more injuries in their midfield and Smith was called up.
He nailed his opportunity. Really nailed it and the Hurricanes signed him for the 2004 season.
He nailed that, too, and in November that year he made his All Blacks debut against Italy – scoring a try with his first touch. It was a remarkable rise to prominence and it happened because Smith brought an unusual skill set to the game.
He wasn’t a power runner. He wasn’t a big man. Tall and skinny, Smith used his intelligence and astute reading of the game to influence it. He was all about astute angles, timing and anticipation.
He impressed with his distribution, his bravery on defence and general desire to organise and control those around him. He made such an impact so quickly that he became the poster boy for alternate routes to the test arena. He showed that it was possible to still make the top grades at a later stage because he was proof that the talent identification system wasn’t perfect.
What he also went on to do was further influence a generation about the value of perseverance. He was prepared to be patient – to wait his chance to establish himself as a regular All Black.
Even though he was a squad regular from 2004, he had to wait until 2008 to become a first pick. He had to be willing to keep working, to keep believing and keep developing.
When he first made the pro ranks he was 82kg – comparatively tiny for a midfielder. He ended his career at 95kg, but he was all about his decisionmaking, reading of the game, angles he took and courage.
He showed it was possible for brain to match brawn in the midfield and established himself as one of the best All Blacks centres in history.
He was smart, composed and accurate. He was calm under pressure and as a result the All Blacks improved their ability to win big games. “I’ve seen him grow from 80kg, wringing wet, to whatever he is now, 90kg, maybe a bit more,” former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga said of Smith in 2014.
“He’s had question marks through his career on his size and ability, his speed, but it’s his speed of intelligence that makes him so good.
“I first came across Snakey playing club rugby. I came back from an All Black game and ended up playing for Petone against OBU at the Basin Reserve up against this skinny little midfielder.
“I’d actually seen him before at the [Wellington] academy and it’s one thing with Conrad that came through right from the start was just his sheer courage. Playing in the position that he plays, dominated by big Polynesians all over the place, he held his own. That was something playing against him that immediately stood out.
“Conrad gets to places quicker than others because he just sees the game a lot faster than others. That’s unique to him and it was always good to have conversations with him as a player and see someone who has a love of the game and who is so competitive.
“He beats himself up a lot, he’s harsher on himself than anyone else, but he also keeps others on task and makes sure they go about their business as best they can.
“That rubs off on those around him, that love of what he does. He shows that every time he runs out. That’s what I’ll remember him for most, the size of his heart. He’s done well off the field in securing his degree and becoming a lawyer. Personally, I think he’s the sort of guy you want to be a role model for all young players coming through, getting that education.
“The other thing I’ve always loved about Conrad is he didn’t come through the pathway like everyone else. He came down from Taranaki, went to uni, came through club rugby and then waited for his opportunity to play for Wellington.”
BACK DOOR Conrad Smith was the poster boy for never giving up the dream.