23 Con­rad Smith [2004-2015] CAPS 94

NZ Rugby World - - Brand Standing -

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.

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