Gifford: Smith shines at fullback for All Blacks
In a rugby world where the top level players are built on similar lines to a Marvel comic hero, Ben Smith is Everyman amongst the monoliths.
That is, if Everyman is whippet fast, has laser eyes, reads a game like a video analysis is playing out in his head, and has a heart as large as his ego is small.
Before the test he was a model of modesty, but he did allow that it was "exciting" to have the opportunity to play fullback at home in front of family and friends.
People in Dunedin who know him suggest that's an almost manic expression of delight by Smith's restrained standards.
He started the test the way he'd continue, fearlessly running into the face of a trio of big English forwards with mayhem in their eyes to clean up a bobbling ball on the ground.
Among his special skills is the fact Smith doesn't acknowledge when he's been tackled.
He can, and did on Saturday night, run, be held, and then, perfectly legally, release the ball, and in a split second pick it up and start running again.
In the middle of All Black mediocrity in the first half he produced one of the greatest defensive efforts I've ever seen in a test match.
From inside the English half Manusamoa Tuilagi seized a loose ball, and with a space that looked as big and empty as the Sahara ahead of him, set off on a run to try scoring glory.
Except for one thing. On the other side of the field Smith was running too.
During the week they interviewed the coach of Smith's under-10 Green Island team, Dave Wootton.
Ben had just been one of the boys, said Wootton, never really standing out. Oh. There was one thing. The kid was never afraid to tackle.
So as hard as Tuilagi ran Smith ran harder. When he hit his man, who weighs almost 10kg more than Smith, the impact was perfectly aimed.
Tuilagi crashed to the ground, Smith sprang up, and grabbed the ball to stop any chance of a try. That was the turning point.
Until then the All Blacks played as badly as they did at Eden Park, maybe even worse.
Knock ons? Plenty. Lose the ball in tackles? Heaps. Slip off a man in defence? That's how Marland Yarde scored his try after seven minutes. Make pointless kicks? By the bucketful.
But in the second half there was much more from Smith, and the All Blacks.
When Aaron Cruden dummied himself into space it was Smith who flew up on the inside to score a terrific try.
Naturally, being Smith he didn't indulge in the show pony run towards the crowd Yarde had, but veered back towards his team, without even the hint of a fist pump.
From then on we saw the All Blacks making a mockery of the idea they're old, listless, and living on luck.
Their second half performance was everything the first 40 minutes were not, accurate and passionate.
To be fair, this is a very good English team, but it's hard to fully warm to them.
There are irritating elements in their play that are almost panto villain blatant.
The time wasting before lineouts deserves to be booed, and there was a shameful moment when Mike Brown stayed on the ground in a pathetic attempt to milk a penalty that belonged at the world cup in Brazil, not on a rugby field.
But let's not dwell on the negatives too much. Last night we saw a hometown hero turn on a golden performance. His first starting game at fullback for the All Blacks is very unlikely to be his last.
Sunday Star Times