An NPC debutant at the ripe old age of 21. A schoolboy and club career spent playing at halfback and first-five. Just one international appearance before turning 25. Shunted to wing or centre to occupy a regular Test berth as a 27-year-old. It’s not exactly the fact-file you’d expect to find for a player regarded as the best fullback in the world, writes Will Evans.
He is seemingly destined to go down as one of the greatest to play the position for the All Blacks, and a vital figure in the 2015 World Cup final in the No.15 jersey, but Ben Smith’s current status as one of New Zealand’s most valuable is testament to his patience, perseverance and diligence – as much as it is due to the natural brilliance that appears to seep out of the unassuming Dunedinite’s every pore.
He wasn’t always a fullback. In fact, Smith was a halfback for three seasons in King’s High School’s First XV and fed the scrums while in England on a subsequent gap year. He shifted one spot wider upon his return to New Zealand with his beloved club team, Green Island. He enjoyed the responsibility of being a ten, but there were others who saw what he could be if the weight was removed from his young shoulders.
One of those people was former Otago NPC coach Steve Martin. He can take a large chunk of the credit for setting Smith, now 29, on a path to becoming the code’s preeminent custodian. Martin, who played 23 games for the province as a halfback, saw more value in Smith as a back-three proposition when he blooded him during the 2007 competition.
“We decided he’d offer a lot more at fullback, where he had a bit more time and space and could use his vision,” Martin recalls of his Nostradamus-like redeployment of a young Smith.
“Ben, being the type of guy he is, was open to any opportunity to play for Otago he would have played just about anywhere I think to put the blue and gold jersey on.”
Martin’s lightbulb moment didn’t signal a meteoric rise to rugby stardom, however. In a trait that has become just as much a trademark as his elusive ball-running, cool-headed defensive cover and freakish ability to claim attacking bombs, Smith continued to graft away for higher honours.
“Just as he (has been) with the All Blacks, it took him time to work through at the levels he was at,” Martin says.
“His potential was always certainly noted. And there was some competition for places. When he was first coming in, it was at the tail-end of the (careers of) Nick Evans, Neil Brew, Craig Clare – there was a lot of reasonable sorts of guys playing then.
“It just took him a year or two to be recognised. I wouldn’t have said (he was) clearly an All Black. He was one of the best players I’d seen, and it was just a matter of how he developed.”
Smith eventually made his Super XV debut for the Highlanders in 2009 and became All Black #1100 at the end of that season, grabbing his first Test cap on the wing against Italy (Cory Jane was at fullback).
A Sevens gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games followed, but his next Test outing was off the bench against Fiji in 2011 and Smith missed out on the World Cup squad later that year with the likes of Jane, Israel Dagg, Mils Muliaina, Zac Guildford and Isaia Toeava preferred.
Undeterred, Smith plugged away as a standout for the battling Highlanders and became a regular bench option for the All Blacks in 2012, and a fixture as starting wing or centre at Test level the following season. Dagg was entrenched in the No.15, but Smith’s stellar displays – including five tries against Australia in the space of eight days – were acknowledged when he was shortlisted for the 2013 IRB Player of the Year gong.
Remarkably, it wasn’t until June last year that Smith started a Test – his 28th, and two weeks after his 28th birthday – at fullback, capitalising on a knee injury to ex-Highlanders teammate (and, coincidentally, All Black #1101) Dagg.
Smith has been a lock in the All Blacks squad ever since, playing wing or fullback. So adept at either, he was the only ‘specialist’ fullback selected in the current World Cup squad, with 2011 hero Dagg left out altogether.
His ubiquitous, dynamic play was an invaluable ingredient in the Highlanders’ watershed 2015 campaign, co-captaining the franchise to an almost mythical inaugural title success. Smith – along with halfback Aaron Smith and centre Malakai Fekitoa – brought star quality to an overwhelmingly unheralded team sheet.
His guidance and direction were equally important, but as Martin noted, Smith becoming a Super XV-winning skipper was about as unlikely on the surface as the Highlanders’ mind-boggling triumph itself.
“He’s a quieter personality as such, but he’s clearly grown over the last couple of years into a leadership role with the Highlanders,” says Smith’s former mentor.
“Five years ago you wouldn’t have seen him as an obvious leader. He didn’t project himself outwards, he just worked hard at his game and honed his skills.”
In an era of super-sized athletes, the comparatively wiry Smith – jokingly referred to as ‘Ben from accounts’ by The Alternative Commentary Collective – is a reminder that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover when it comes to footy. In an uncanny quirk, namesake Cameron Smith – the decorated Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australian captain – is ribbed by teammates for having ‘the body of an accountant. Not-so-big Ben is just as influential as the NRL gun, even if neither has the rippled exterior to match.
More tellingly, perhaps, is what Smith’s team mates call him. To them he is simply “The Oracle”.
Smith is a true Otago treasure, one of the rare Dunedin born-and-bred players to rise to the All Blacks’ ranks and spend their entire careers down south. The vast majority of the professional era Otago and Highlander Test reps have come from elsewhere in New Zealand (including a staggering number from Hawke’s Bay), while the previous blue-and-golden child, the great Jeff Wilson, hails from Invercargill.
The quietly-spoken veteran now stands on the cusp of becoming a New Zealand rugby icon, with Ben Smith-mania gathering momentum in recent weeks. His performances at the World Cup – culminating in a man-of-the-match display in last weekend’s semi-final slog against South Africa – have been spellbinding. Produce another in the final opposite Wallabies trump card Israel Folau in an All Blacks victory, and Smith will just about be anointed All Black royalty in perpetuity.
Martin, who these days is the General Manager for the Southern Zone of New Zealand Rugby League, could justifiably command a place in rugby union folklore alongside whoever it was that first plonked Jonah Lomu on the wing after playing schoolboy rugby as a flanker.
Although he takes some satisfaction from Smith’s ascent to rugby’s heights, Martin graciously prefers to deflect praise back onto the hardworking Smith.
“You take a great deal of pride in the way good people can achieve; much less about what I’ve been able to do is what Ben’s done himself,” Martin says.
“There have been a number of people, I’d imagine, who were influential along the way, including his family.
“But I think his success is testament to him as a person and what he’s done, as opposed to what other people have inputted.“(But) you do feel proud to have had even a small part to do with someone as special as him.”
First published by The Spinoff