Smith fully de­serves his break

The Southland Times - - SPORT - MARC HINTON

OPIN­ION: Ben Smith’s tim­ing might raise an eye­brow, but cer­tainly not his in­tent.

Eight tests (max­i­mum) skipped for a sab­bat­i­cal that has been well tele­graphed since he signed his new con­tract with NZ Rugby ear­lier this year sounds a lot. But it’s not. It’s the prover­bial drop in the rugby ocean of matches this guy will play in his ca­reer.

And strate­gi­cally it’s a move that has a lot go­ing for it as the world’s best full­back looks to get him­self through to the 2019 World Cup, and pos­si­bly be­yond, with more than fumes in his tank. It just makes all kinds of sense.

The High­landers and All Blacks No 15 has well and truly earned the right to take the rest of the rugby sea­son off af­ter the Dunedin test against the Wal­la­bies on Au­gust 26. The guy plays his rugby with com­plete and ut­ter com­mit­ment for 10 months a year, and if an ex­tended break and proper pre­sea­son for 2018 are what he be­lieves he needs, then who are we to ar­gue with that?

Kick in some fam­ily time and a de­cent men­tal re­fresh, and it’s a move that Smith not only de­serves, but most prob­a­bly needs.

This is Ben Smith know­ing what is right for Ben Smith. This is NZ Rugby un­der­stand­ing some­times that player wel­fare has to come ahead of putting the best cat­tle pos­si­ble on the park ev­ery week for the All Blacks.

Com­mon sense over dol­lars and cents.

The only thing that’s slightly un­usual about the re­ported sab­bat­i­cal is that it’s com­ing on the back of a sea­son where he has played min­i­mal footy be­cause of on­go­ing is­sues over what was first thought to be con­cus­sion, but then later re­vealed as an in­ner-ear prob­lem.

Smith is not ex­actly worn out. In fact, fresh as a daisy might be a more apt de­scrip­tion.

So it seems a shame to kick in a break when he’s al­ready missed a heap of games for health rea­sons, and was prob­a­bly go­ing to be as sprightly as he’s been in a long time for the back end of the sea­son.

But one can only pre­sume these things are planned long in ad­vance, and that once the die is cast it can’t be un­cast. Also that an All Blacks coach doesn’t want all his old hands tak­ing their breaks at the same time.

So while it might have made sense for Smith to push his break back a year, other fac­tors would have come into play. Like with his young fam­ily, this might still be the best time for Smith to step away from rugby. Like maybe Kieran Read or Sam White­lock or Owen Franks have some­thing sim­i­lar in the works for next year, so the ge­nial Dune­di­nite didn’t want to im­pinge on their plans.

Re­gard­less, it strikes me as an ex­ceed­ingly smart move with the big­ger pic­ture in mind.

Our rugby play­ers can­not be ex­pected to play from Fe­bru­ary to the start of De­cem­ber, and con­tinue to hit their high stan­dards for both fran­chise and coun­try.

It’s just not pos­si­ble in a sport as bru­tal and un­for­giv­ing as rugby. It also wears on you men­tally hav­ing to spend so long in the ‘‘en­vi­ron­ment’’, work­ing through the seven-day cy­cle of get­ting your­self back up for the next step into the glad­i­a­to­rial arena.

So moves like this have to now be con­sid­ered the norm among the more ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paign­ers. They worked ex­ceed­ingly well for the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, and they will work equally well for Smith, Read, White­lock, Franks and co as they fig­ure out how to stay on top of their games over an ex­tended pe­riod.

New Zealand has stayed ahead of the chas­ing pack in in­ter­na­tional rugby for a while now based on our abil­ity to be cre­ative, to think on our feet, and to adapt the sys­tem to what best suits the All Blacks.

But the re­cent Lions tour, and other events up north, have shown that chal­lenges are loom­ing. That the All Blacks’ place on that iron throne could be un­der threat.

So sab­bat­i­cals could be just one tool Steve Hansen uses to keep his men in fight­ing shape for when it re­ally counts. Oth­ers could be spared the north­ern tour. Or sit out parts of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship. What­ever it takes to have their load light­ened.

It doesn’t make sense to have the best depth in the game if you don’t use it wisely.

Smith will be missed, for sure. But Izzy Dagg, Damian McKen­zie, Jordie Bar­rett and Nehe Mil­nerSkud­der would hap­pily add: ‘‘Don’t fret. We’ve got this!’’

The re­al­ity is if rugby isn’t go­ing to pro­tect its play­ers’ best in­ter­ests, then they need to act them­selves. Well done Ben Smith for be­ing re­spon­si­ble with your ca­reer, your fam­ily and, most im­por­tantly, your­self.


Grant­ing Ben Smith a sab­bat­i­cal is a win for com­mon sense over dol­lars and cents.

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