We get to know High­lander Ben Smith, the All Blacks’ unas­sum­ing back- field wizard

Rugby World - - CONTENTS -

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


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

Dream duo

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

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