All Blacks centre Conrad Smith has a smile on his face, a spring in his step and is enjoying rugby more than ever. Toby Robson reports.
Conrad Smith probably won't be reaching for the moisturiser or hair dye in the years to come.
Well, not if he enjoys his advancing years as much in life, as he is on the rugby field.
The Hurricanes captain hasn't been hard to spot during the Super Rugby season and it's been the same in the All Blacks camp for the past two weeks.
The 30-year-old is the bloke with the smile on his face and the spring in his step.
He said yesterday he was enjoying his rugby more now, than at any time in his long and illustrious career.
His answer is refreshingly simple.
"I've always enjoyed my footy and I've always kept a fairly simple philosophy about it," he said. "I love it, I love winning. I'm competitive, but I also know it's just a game and I think that's worked well for me.
"Especially early in your career I think that can catch players out [taking it too seriously]. Later on most guys tend to enjoy it, they relax a little bit more and I'm the same. You realise it's not going to be forever so you will enjoy it while it lasts.
"That's certainly been my attitude, particularly this year."
If he was slightly reluctant a year ago, Smith has embraced the captaincy role at the Hurricanes where he's fed off the enthusiasm of his young charges.
Smith says a similar dynamic is at play in the All Blacks, post World Cup, where the winds of change in coaching and playing personnel have reinvigorated the senior players.
Smith is clearly excited by challenges.
His thoughts on long-time Irish rival Brian O'Driscoll hint of the never-say-die attitude Smith has always taken onto the rugby field.
"Every time we've played him we've [the All Blacks] had really good nights and I know what it's like when you are playing behind a pack that doesn't have ascendancy. You get limited opportunities and the opportunities you get aren't great.
"He still works hard, he still creates three or four half chances for his team and he did that again on Saturday.
"I know when I'm in that position, whether it's playing for the Hurricanes or whoever, sometimes it's easy when you are going backward to switch off and you don't feature.
"It's something I've had to work on in my career, that you have to keep working hard and do the best you can with the opportunities you get."
SMITH does just that. He's a decent-sized 95kg these days, but he's never been the biggest or fastest player on the park.
He's made up for it by being one step ahead.
"The beautiful thing about rugby is you can't defend everything," he said. "So if you can look at an opposition, regardless of which team you are playing, you can soon find a way, whether it be get around them, or through them, however it may be.
"If you get the whole backline seeing the same thing and reacting the same way, that's when you can operate pretty well."
Just how good is Smith?
While debate rages about whether Sonny Bill Williams or Ma'a Nonu should play second five-eighth, people rarely talk about who should play centre.
That's because Smith gives few reasons to question his selection. He turned in another top-notch performance in the first test against Ireland.
He said his passion had not waned since he scored a try with his first touch of the ball during his debut against Italy in Rome in 2004.
Smith said he and senior team-mates Dan Carter and Richie McCaw had felt the butterflies before the season opener in Auckland.
"It didn't feel like anything had got easier. I think because it was such a new group and we had a short window, there were a lot of unknowns," Smith said.
"Looking back, we may have trained well, but there were a lot of errors because we were trying to fit so much, so there was a fair bit of anxiety before.
"That can be a good thing, but it shows you don't ever really relax however many tests you play. There's something special about this jersey."
THREE KEY AREAS
The breakdown: Plenty of intensity, but not always the most accurate in Auckland. The All Blacks were disappointed with their clean out where on several occasions Irish openside Sean O'Brien was able to get in and pilfer the ball. Getting the numbers game right will be crucial.
Scrums: Not as consistent as the All Blacks would have liked. There were some decent shunts, but also a few wobbles. Ireland are bolstered by the return of experienced tighthead Mike Ross. But expect a motivated home pack at set piece.
Finishing: They tend to be a tad picky, but the All Blacks did bomb a couple of tries just before halftime at Eden Park, once when Israel Dagg passed too early, and once when Owen Franks turned the ball over close to the Irish line
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