Ben Smith shaping as pivotal to ABs backline
In all likelihood there will be no Dan Carter, no Piri Weepu and no Tony Woodcock to face the French this Saturday. But there will be a Ben Smith, and that's more important than you might realise.
The Otago and Highlanders fullback-cum-wing-cum-centre – his national coaches don't like the “utility” tag – could be on the verge of blossoming into one of the most important members of the All Black backline.
Word is, so high are the national coaches on this young man's talent and upside, they're intent on finding a spot for him somewhere in their backline. He's only started three of the 12 tests he's played since his debut on 2009's tour, but that ratio could change dramatically.
For starters, unlike some of his All Black team-mates, he's in dazzling form, having achieved the difficult feat of looking a million dollars in a team playing like paupers. Last Saturday night his class was written all over his side's upset of the Blues. At 27 he appears to be maturing into a complete sort of footballer – whether at fullback where he plays for the Highlanders, or wing or centre where he happily slots in.
In fact, if Cory Jane wasn't injured right now, it might be the No 15 jumper being fitted for him on Saturday night at Eden Park. But as it is, Israel Dagg will likely get the reprieve and Smith move into the vacant right wing spot.
Selector Grant Fox says Smith is probably blissfully unaware how good he is capable of being, and you could see an element of that as he spoke to the media in Auckland yesterday after a wet morning training session at Trusts Stadium.
He talked about being happy to play wherever picked, about the easy transfer of skills between fullback and wing, about his maturity as a footballer and how his “love of rugby” helped keep his standards up as the Highlanders' formline plunged.
But you could see he wasn't entirely comfortable with the whole thing. This is an intelligent and thoughtful fellow, but his answers got shorter and shorter as the question line moved into uncomfortable territory, like his new contract which it's said will reflect his rising value, and which he says he isn't thinking about at the moment.
“You don't want to back yourself too much, pump your own tyres up,” he said at one stage. He's a southern man after all, educated at Kings High School in Dunedin, and down that way they like to walk the walk first.
It's important to understand, though, that Smith has been targeted for just this moment since Hansen took charge. They see him as that good a player, and potentially as influential as, say, his namesake in the backline's midfield.
From what we've all seen in Super Rugby this year, it's hard to argue that a guy who plays with a heady mix of Jeff Wilson, Cory Jane and Conrad Smith at their best isn't ready for this ascension.
“I see him capable of starting in three [positions], and that's why I don't like the utility tag,” said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster yesterday. “He's good enough to play in three positions and for us it's probably a matter of where we've got the best mix. Clearly wing looks pretty likely this week.”
Smith did concede that it's an important campaign for him as he looks to find a regular home in the All Black backline. “If I get the opportunity I'm really looking forward to having a go,” he said.
The All Blacks had a decent hitout in atrocious conditions yesterday, calling in Blues players to make up numbers as they started the process of sharpening a game-plan for Saturday night's World Cup final rematch.
They look set to be without 259 caps worth of experience too. Carter's fractured right hand remained swollen and Foster admitted the world's best No 10 was an “unlikely” starter, while it's understood both Weepu and Woodcock would not be risked this week.
Weepu was knocked cold in Dunedin on Saturday night and though he's been telling all and sundry he's right as rain, it's hard to see the coaches taking any chances with quality alternatives in Aaron Smith and Tawera Kerr-Barlow on hand.
Woodock was a no-show at training because of the abscess in his nose, and again he's not likely to be risked this week which would allow Wyatt Crockett a rare start at loosehead.
Whoever runs out at Eden Park, Foster says it's about taking baby steps in week one of a long campaign.
“The key point is with the short time we've got we need to spend most of our time getting comfortable with our game …. regardless of who we're playing we need to get good at our game first. And as we go through this three-test series we're going to have to get good at figuring [the French] out.”