Big hearted Conrad Smith 'skinny, small'
Conrad Smith's been working his unconventional angles from the start.
At Francis Douglas Memorial College Smith's mates remember him as an all-rounder, a debater of note, runner-up dux and a wily halfback with a competitive streak in everything he did.
On the cricket field he dreamed of being a lusty hitter like Chris Cairns, but former classmate Brendon Hart says a ''skinny Rod Latham'' was closer to the truth.
''As a cricketer in the first XI I would describe Conrad as slow, too enthusiastic,'' Hart said this week with a laugh. ''The late cut was his only shot. He would just sit back and play it to third man, every ball.''
Smith's father, Trevor, represented Taranaki in cricket and reminded his son recently that his favoured shot was a product of the family hallway where his go-to shot was into an adjacent room at point during marathon matches against his brother, Nathan.
It's a quirky story that says a lot about a bloke whose ability to out-think rather than outmuscle his opponents has been a feature of a storied rugby career that will chalk up another milestone at Westpac Stadium today.
Smith will become the sixth man to make 100 appearances for the Hurricanes in a journey that doesn't fit the modern rugby cliche.
Hart said Smith had always been small, a first five-eighth who ended up playing halfback in the 1999 first XV.
''These days he's deceptively big, but he wasn't in those days,'' Hart recalled of his former college team-mate. ''I always remember he wanted to play second five-eighth, centre. His flatmates and friends at Uni in Wellington, guys such as Michael Barnes and Scott Ireland, were all playing premiers straight away, but Conrad wanted to play in the midfield and I don't think he ever considered the thought of going back to halfback.
''The thing with Conrad is he wasn't really playing rugby because he wanted to go anywhere, it was because he enjoyed it and he enjoyed that position.''
At Smith's wedding last year there were a noticeable lack of rugby stars in attendance and Hart said that was because he'd never let the sport become his sole focus.
''What's pretty cool about him is he's not a system child. He came through the ranks, he's a lawyer, a lot of his good friends aren't footy players. He puts a massive effort into catching up with all his friends and family,'' Hart said.
A ''decent sized'' group of his former classmates and close friends will make the road trip down from Taranaki for today's match and Hart said Smith wouldn't hesitate to do the same if the tables were turned.
''It's pretty awesome. He gives up a lot of his time for various things and people and he's always forthcoming. I know if Francis Douglas ever needed him for anything he would bus there to try and do it.
''He actually loves the game. That's why he does it week in week out and why he stays at the Hurricanes regardless of whether it's a losing side. He puts everything into it. I don't think he has ever had the passion to play for anyone else and he's the same with OBU.''
It was with his Wellington club side that Smith made his mark and among the first to fall victim to underestimating his powers was his first Hurricanes captain Tana Umaga.
''I first came across Snakey playing club rugby. I came back from an All Black game and ended up playing for Petone against OBU at the Basin Reserve up against this skinny little midfielder,'' Umaga said this week.
''I'd actually seen him before at the [Wellington] academy and it's one thing with Conrad that came through right from the start was just his sheer courage.
''Playing in the position that he plays, dominated by big Polynesians all over the place, he held his own. That was something playing against him that immediately stood out.''
Smith's courage has become the stuff of legends. He has battled through a badly broken leg in 2006, a nasty broken nose in 2011, a detached retina in 2012 and a severe concussion in Pretoria last year.
None of it has seemed to knock his passion for competing and it was that trait which earned Umaga's begrudging admiration during that first encounter.
''They beat us that day too, and he cheated. He won't admit it, but he knows. I gave away a penalty in front of the posts when he wouldn't release the ball when I was trying to steal it. He knows to this day he was in the wrong,'' Umaga said. ''It stuck with me. I remember it clear as day they kicked that penalty to win.''
Umaga witnessed Smith's physical development first-hand, but said it was his intelligence rather than any weights programme that made him a world class player.
''I've seen him grow from 80kg, wringing wet, to whatever he is now, 90kg, maybe a bit more. He's had question marks through his career on his size and ability, his speed, but it's his speed of intelligence that makes him so good.
''Conrad gets to places quicker than others because he just sees the game a lot faster than others. That's unique to him and it was always good to have conversations with him as a player and see someone who has a love of the game and who is so competitive.
''He beats himself up a lot, he's harsher on himself than anyone else, but he also keeps others on task and makes sure they go about their business as best they can.
''That rubs off on those around him, that love of what he does. He shows that every time he runs out. That's what I'll remember him for most, the size of his heart.''
Umaga, who played 122 matches for the Hurricanes and 100 for Wellington, said Smith's loyalty and ability to successfully juggle rugby and education was an example he hoped other players would follow.
''He's done well off the field in securing his degree and becoming a lawyer. Personally, I think he's the sort of guy you want to be a role model for all young players coming through, getting that education.
''The other thing I've always loved about Conrad is he didn't come through the pathway like everyone else. He came down from Taranaki, went to uni, came through club rugby and then waited for his opportunity to play for Wellington.
''I remember he sat basically that whole [first] season out [in 2004] and didn't get any game time as a Hurricane. Then he had a good NPC and suddenly he's an All Black on the end of year tour. It's been non-stop since and now he's regarded as one of the best [centres] we've ever had and I don't think you'd be far wrong with that view.''
Born: October 12, 1981 in Hawera
Physical: 1.86m, 95kg
Educated: Francis Douglas Memorial College, Victoria University
Qualification: Bachelor of Laws with Honours
Club: Old Boys University
Debut: v Cats, 2004 at Westpac Stadium
Matches: 99 (94 starts, 5 subs)
Points: 90 (28 tries)
Record: Won 53, lost 44, drawn 2
As captain: Played 34, won 15, lost 19
The Hurricanes 100 club: Tana Umaga (122), Ma'a Nonu (110), Andrew Hore (106), Rodney So'oialo (101), Neemia Tialata (101)
The Dominion Post