Ben Smith's patience and loyalty gets rewarded

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 15/08/2014
Ben Smith
Getty Images
MADE IT: Ben Smith didn't want to spend his life wonder what if, had he taken the money option and headed abroad.

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Many haven't made the grade. Others with less competitive spirit have given up. Not Ben Smith. His third test start, at fullback in Sydney tomorrow, is a lesson in the value of perseverance.

It's taken the best part of five years for Smith to get to this place. Some players crack the All Blacks and never look back but Smith has needed fighting qualities of patience and loyalty.

In his 2009 test debut in Milan, he dropped his first touch of the ball in a collectively average outing. Some players don't recover from such challenges.

He spent the next two years largely on the outer, playing one test against Fiji in 2011 before missing World Cup selection. At the time, Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Mils Muliaina and Richard Kahui were preferred.

"The five or six years didn't go fast," Smith said.

"At times it felt like I was working on my game but I had to bide my time. There were a lot of good outside backs around the World Cup.

"Going back to Milan, that was just one of those things that can happen at any time. I was pretty young at the time and learnt a lot from the opportunities that I got."

Even at that early stage Smith could have become fed up; dropped his bottom lip and instructed his agent to auction his services around the globe to the highest bidder, like many aspiring talents in the modern era. Instead, the humble Dunedin lad dug in.

"That's what is special about the All Blacks. There's a lot of depth not just in the outside backs. I know a lot of people have to weigh up whether they stick around and give it a good crack or head overseas but for me I was always keen to get back into the All Blacks. No-one wants to leave saying "what if I stayed'."

That attitude is now paying off. He's since been shortlisted for IRB player of the year and forced the national selectors to pen his name on the team-sheet in 27 of the last 31 assignments. In essence, the 28-year-old is an increasingly influential figure in this squad.

"It's nice to see the coaches have confidence that I can go out and do the job this week."

Smith says featuring on the wing doesn't bother him, and to a certain extent he's been a success on the right edge. Ultimately, though, his form for the Highlanders and against England in his favoured position was simply too compelling to ignore.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made it clear yesterday he wouldn't be doing his job had he not handed Smith the fullback role over Dagg. The selection was far from clear-cut - with Dagg starting 27 of the last 31 tests at fullback - but it sends the right message. In this case at least, form has been rewarded.

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"His performances in the last two tests, they were just sensational," Hansen said.

Although some might argue a Dagg-Smith-Savea combination brings a better balance to the back three, no-one can dispute Hansen's statement.

Dagg and Smith both possess sound aerial and creative abilities, but the latter's counter-attacking confidence currently sets him apart.

"That's something I've always enjoyed doing," Smith said. "It's an aspect of the game I find quite exciting. You can try and find a few holes and work as a back three to get through them. It's definitely a part of the game that I enjoy."

Just one aspect the Wallabies need to nullify to halt the dominating black wave.

- Stuff

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