Conrad Smith still to decide on timing of break

TRY TIME: Conrad Smith goes in to score for the Hurricanes.
TRY TIME: Conrad Smith goes in to score for the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes skipper and veteran All Black Conrad Smith says he remains undecided over the timing of his scheduled international break as he weighs the possibility of bypassing the Rugby Championship.

It had been presumed that Smith would take his time off - part of a plan to lessen the load on the 31-year-old, 66-test midfield kingpin - at the end of the year when the All Blacks make their annual November trek north.

This year Steve Hansen's side will play tests against France (Nov 9), England (Nov 16) and Ireland (Nov 24) on their tour which is a week shorter than usual as the NZRU looks to do its bit for player welfare. But Smith has become intrigued by the benefits of instead sitting out the four-nation southern hemisphere Rugby Championship which involves a heavy load of tests and travel against Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

The Rugby Championship kicks off on August 17 when the All Blacks head to Sydney for the Bledisloe opener and doesn't conclude until October 5 when they end the campaign in Johannesburg.

There is also a third Bledisloe Cup test in Dunedin on October 19.

Smith told the Sunday Star-Times after Friday night's hard-earned 22-16 victory by the Hurricanes over the Force in Wellington that he was still working through his options on when to take his break. He said he hoped to make a final decision some time during the national training camps Hansen has scheduled for May.

"It's not a decision I'm taking lightly and there's a lot to think about," he said. "I love playing for the All Blacks, but this is something that may allow me to continue to do that for longer if I do it right." Smith said there was a lot to consider, including the requirements of the All Blacks, and it was a call he would make with plenty of input from Hansen.

Part of the problem is that with Richard Kahui's imminent defection to Japan and the long-term injury to Tamati Ellison, no clear alternative to the evergreen Hurricane has emerged.

Rene Ranger has played well there for the Blues, but he's understood to have committed to joining Montpellier in France, while Robbie Fruean of the Crusaders continues to exhibit frailties that suggest the step up to test level is beyond him.

Utility players such as the Highlanders' Ben Smith, the Blues' Charles Piutau or Tim Nanai-Williams of the Chiefs could be considered, while there's a chance Ellison will make it back in time,

It's understood Smith is enticed by the possibility of sitting out the Rugby Championship, which has the All Blacks on the road for the best part of two months, though it may be that Hansen persuades him November is when he can be best spared.

"I love the All Blacks environment, but it can be pretty tough and tiring when you're basically in hotels and living out of a suitcase the whole time." Smith, meanwhile, was satisfied enough with Friday night's three tries to one victory over a committed Force outfit which found a way to make the game tight in the second half.

The Canes looked like they would cruise after they ran in two tries (to Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen and Brad Shields) to lead 15-3 at the break, and stretched that to 23-6 early in the second half when Tusi Pisi crossed for the home side's third five-pointer.

But the Force rallied behind former Hurricane Alby Mathewson, who scored a brilliant solo try, and finished the match much the stronger as the Canes went badly off the boil.

"We did it pretty tough in the end, but it's one we've got to take and move on from here," said Smith.

Smith was rapt to secure a fifth victory, bank four valuable points, move to second equal on the Kiwi conference standings and bounce back immediately from the previous week's defeat at Eden Park.

"Picking up wins when we're below our best hasn't always been a forte of this franchise, so we're happy to do that, but very aware we need to lift our levels heading into this tough period we have coming up."

The Hurricanes host the Stormers in Palmerston North on Friday night, then head to South Africa to take on the Bulls and Cheetahs at altitude, before returning to welcome the defending champion Chiefs back at Westpac Stadium.

Sunday Star Times