Why Ben Smith almost quit the All Blacks
Ben Smith, set to start his first test since August last year when he runs on to Eden Park against France next Saturday, has revealed his fears over his concussion symptoms which effectively ruined his British and Irish Lions series 12 months ago.
All Blacks vice-captain Smith fell heavily in the first test against the Lions at Eden Park and failed a head injury assessment. Adding to his worries — and the feeling he might have to give up the game — were the two concussion injuries he had suffered while playing for the Highlanders leading up to the series, a high point for him and every other All Black in the squad which was drawn in controversial circumstances at the end.
In the documentary series All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks released yesterday by Amazon Prime Video, Smith and his wife Katie invite the television cameras into their Dunedin home after the first Lions test and express their concerns about the possibility of Smith, who turned 32 yesterday, having to retire.
“You hear of guys that have had to give up the game,” Ben says. “You worry that you’re not going to be able to do something you love.
“I hope to play for as many years as I can — and hopefully for another three or four — but my most important job is being a dad and husband, and the scariest thing is that if something was to happen and I wasn’t able to do that.
“I want to be a good dad for Walter and Annabelle. Is it going to come right or not? That question is always at the back of your mind.” Fortunately for Smith, who has played 64 tests, the concussion-like symptoms were eventually diagnosed as an inner ear problem, but his absence was felt heavily in the defeat to the Lions in the second test in Wellington, where his dependability at the back would have been a godsend in the appalling weather.
In the draw in the third test back at Eden Park, the All Blacks created enough chances to win but failed to finish them before watching in disbelief as referee Romain Poite changed a late penalty for the All Blacks to a scrum, a series of events that continue to confound with repeated viewing but for which World Rugby have never felt the need to explain. The test finished in a stalemate and so did the series.
“I just remember getting whiplash and that something wasn’t quite right,” Smith says of the first test at Eden Park, won 30-15 by the All Blacks.
“I was getting vertigo and my balance was all out. I just knew it was something that wasn’t going away.”
Smith eventually recovered and played the first two tests of the Rugby Championship against Australia in Sydney and Dunedin, two tests which were almost complete opposites.
At Allianz Stadium, the All Blacks roared to a big lead and held off the fast finishing Wallabies to win 54-34, and at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the All Blacks had to fight back to win 35-29 in an extraordinary final few minutes which featured a winning try from Beauden Barrett. It is significant in the documentary that the All Blacks reserves in Sydney were disappointed with their efforts once they joined the game — particularly halfback TJ Perenara — and that in Dunedin, they helped seal a remarkable win. It was Perenara’s link pass from skipper Kieran Read that sent Barrett over the line. Smith scored a try in each test before taking the rest of the year off (missing eight tests) on sabbatical. Wife Katie is filmed with daughter Annabelle at the test in Dunedin and expresses concerns at the welfare of her husband in an increasingly violent game. “When someone goes down, you always feel bad and you always check it’s not your number. It sounds bad but is it 15? No, okay I can relax.”