BEN SM I T H
We get to know Highlander Ben Smith, the All Blacks’ unassuming back- field wizard
T ALL happens so quickly. Mum, hustling to get the kids out of the house first thing in the morning, clocks that neither her son nor daughter have had any breakfast. The boy is happy to go hungry but her daughter would love some instant oats, so Mum tosses her a packet without even thinking about it. But as the sachet is torn open something truly unbelievable takes place: an entire human being comes tumbling out onto the table.
Hold on, is that… Is that Ben Smith?
“John Hardie told you to ask about this?” Smith repeats back to Rugby
World, through a laugh. “Well as John knows, I’m from Green
Island, where Harraways oats are from. That’s how they knew about me and they hit me up while I was on holiday and asked me to do the ads. In the TV ad I’m jumping out of the breakfast packet…”
As surreal a sponsorship match-up as this sounds, it makes sense. Drive around Dunedin on
New Zealand’s South Island and you will see how close the bond is between the Highlanders, their community and local businesses.
And as a hometown lad and a
senior Lander, Smith is in demand. Of course, his incredible play could have something to do with it.
In the Harraways clip, Smith signs off with the (now immortal) line: “I’m not a genie… eat your oats.” But for three years the full-back has conjured up some incredible rugby, springing forth with devastating attacks and fielding kicks flawlessly. For many, the All Black is the best 15 on the planet – Stuart Hogg certainly holds him in high regard, as you can see on page 74 – and he could be the ideal poster boy for team players everywhere.
He gives his view on his form. “Over those three years I’ve had no injuries really, so I could build momentum. That has helped a lot. I managed to play those three seasons without missing too much. And the type of game we played at the Highlanders really suited my style of play. We play at a speed, which suits our game. We like to play through our backs in different ways, from quick taps or quick lineouts.”
Okay, but what about your style, because you shone for the All Blacks as well? How do you assess your own individual game?
“My style? I’m not actually sure what it is. I like an open game where the ball is in play quite a lot. I like playing from turnovers, having a crack. I enjoy the challenge. But I think most Kiwis want to play that way, to enjoy it. It’s not just me. Most Kiwi Super Rugby teams try to play like that. And we’ve realised that most Super Rugby teams outside of New Zealand don’t play like that, which helps.”
It was not always thus. Not for the Highlanders. In 2013 they finished second-bottom of the Super Rugby log, losing more games than anyone else, but finishing above the Kings thanks to a haul of bonus points. The team needed a hard look at themselves. They were battlers – being a ‘battler’ is a quality the rugby people of New Zealand value highly – but there was no end product. Guided by then head coach Jamie Joseph, who had run the cutter since 2011 but now coaches Japan, they held a review.
Teams hold reviews all the time. Saracens, for example, were famed for their conveyer belt of coaches in the Noughties, each new boss bringing with them a list of values and behaviours and practices. But while Sarries changed that all when Brendan Venter came in, the South African looking to build memories rather than imposing strictures, the Highlanders looked to make their little place in the South a destination for a distinct brand. The change in direction paid off almost immediately, as they made the qualifiers in 2014, won Super Rugby in 2015 and reached the semi-finals again last year.
“We had to play the game at speed,” Smith recalls. “It was something Tony Brown (now head coach, but assistant at the time) made us understand. Under the roof at Forsyth Barr, with a dry track, we could play expansive stuff. The players all gave feedback and the coaches took that on board.
“We always like to have a laugh but it was about making sure we got a good balance with playing good rugby. 2014 was the first year I was captain, which changed my perception a wee bit. I was
“DUNEDIN WILL GO NUTS! THE STUDENTS WILL GET INTO IT”
co-captain alongside Nasi Manu. We worked well together because we were different people with different strengths in different ways. I wanted to play good rugby because, if you did that, other people would follow. It started to make sense. I believe we got that buy-in from the team. I wasn’t – I am not – a natural leader. I cared a lot about the team but hadn’t had that whole responsibility.”
He grew into that captain’s role, much like he has grown into rugby. Smith fits into that Kiwi mould of surprise packages. With all the kindness in the world, he doesn’t look like he would dominate in the field of gladiators and maniacs that rugby can sometimes be. However, he has the tenacity and cunning that sets many great players apart – ally that with perfectly timed runs, a sense of adventure and the willingness to be emptied by any meathead and you’ve got something potent.
He never believed that full-time rugby, let alone pulling on the silver fern, was a realistic possibility. Not until after he spent his gap year playing footy in England, at Bristol. He looks back to a simpler time.
“I was 18 and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After school I had a year to do something different, to give it a crack somewhere else, which was a great experience. I had a high-school coach (Darryl Paterson) who had gone over to coach the first XV at Colston’s – I played for Old Colstonians.
“I knew when I went back to Dunedin I’d give PE at uni a crack, so there at the school I was helping out through the week. When I went back from the UK I had a new motivation to play. But I didn’t think it would all go as far as it has.”
He went back to his beloved Green Island team, but his talent would eventually burn through. By 2008 he was playing ITM Cup rugby for Otago. A year later he was a Highlander. Then in 2009 he went on an end-of-year tour with the All Blacks. He soaked it up, taking everything he could from experienced campaigners – Mils Muliaina was an old hand he kept a particularly keen eye on.
It seems like so much was coming for him in a short period. You might not remember it but Smith also has a Commonwealth Games gold medal, winning the sevens in Delhi. He missed out on World Cup selection in 2011 but was part of the 2015-winning squad. He has played at wing, centre and full-back for the All Blacks and almost never looks flustered.
He has dealt with the spotlight well. Being an All Black brings with it undoubted attention but in New Zealand you can find solace when you need it. Family life is distraction enough, with Ben and wife Katie having their hands full with young daughter Annabelle and newborn Walter. But if they want to really get away, the Smiths have a holiday home in Wanaka, Otago, where they can hike or take to the lake for waterskiing and wakeboarding.
Not that there will be much chance to go unnoticed in New Zealand this month. As Smith is well aware, the Lions and their army of fans are coming.
“Everyone here in New Zealand is getting pretty excited about it. It only happens for us every 12 years, so it’s very rare. And the way things are going (with rugby in the northern hemisphere), the Lions are bringing a very strong team. I think it will be an awesome series but I also think it is great that they are playing the Super Rugby sides.”
And what about your town and its residents: how do you think they will react when the Lions face off against the Highlanders? “Dunedin will go nuts! The students will definitely get right into it… it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere.”
While many in Super Rugby are trying to downplay the tourists arriving, Smith clearly harbours excitement of his own, asking a few quick questions before shepherding his kids to daycare.
Which is great. The back has squeezed so much into his career, coming from outside to make a searing mark on the world game. In the past few years he has been nothing short of spellbinding.
Smile-high club After scoring v Argentina
Smith and Nasi Manu lift the Super Rugby trophy
Style guide Leading the way for a Highlanders attack Nuts A Landers fan
Grin and bear it
At All Blacks training