Versatile Smith's talent is finally blossoming

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2013
Ben Smith
Photosport
UNDERSTATED: Ben Smith has flown under the radar but the All Blacks coaches predict big things from him this season.

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Ben Smith isn't the biggest or strongest player in the All Blacks, and he claims he's not the fastest, but he just might be their most exciting player one week into the test season.

That's a staggering thought for a player who up until this season was battling to find a home in a backline that was fully booked with automatic selections.

But so compelling has the Highlanders wing's form been this year, many feel he should replace Israel Dagg at fullback.

That jury is still out, but there is no longer any doubt about Smith's ability to break the line with monotonous regularity, a trend he continued at Eden Park last weekend.

Such moments have been weekly events during the Highlanders' horrid season and it's hard not to feel they will become more regular for the All Blacks.

At 27, Smith is player who knows and trusts his own game. And it's why his 14th test against France in Christchurch tonight will be among the most relevant of his career. It is only his sixth start, but a few more big performances and he could become an indispensable asset - be it as a wing, or a fullback.

Coping with expectation is the next challenge for a player who has been a slow burner since his nervous debut against Italy in Milan in 2009.

The question is why it's taken so long for his full array of skills to present at the highest level.

Smith says he's never felt like a star, but has chipped away at his game since the moment he laced up his first boots at the age of six or seven.

"I don't think you could say I'm naturally fast," the former Kings High School student said this week.

"Through the years I've put a lot of work in. Getting into the [Otago] academy programme you get a lot of speed training and that helps a lot, working on that each week I think I've just slowly improved.

"I think that's probably the case with me [that I'm not as fast as people think]. You pick up a lot of things as you go in your career and know where gaps can open up and yeah, you can probably look a bit quicker than you are on a rugby field."

Smith's never been a slug despite playing most of his early rugby at No 8 and his speed was acknowledged by his selection in the New Zealand sevens team in 2010.

But he believes his edge comes from explosiveness rather than any claims on Usain Bolt like qualities on a running track.

"To be honest, I don't know how I rank with other guys in terms of outright pace. I'm not too sure because we don't really a lot of 100m timed sprints or anything.

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"We often just do five metres through the [sensor] lights to make sure we are quick off the mark. That's something I think, if you can get quick off the mark over that first 10 metres, that can accelerate you through the gap and from there [anything can happen]."

And with Smith it usually has this year. His Super Rugby season has been a living highlights reel of broken tackles and despairing defenders.

He figures part of his natural ability can be traced back to the location of his family home in Dunedin, which was about 100m from the Green Island club.

"It's always just been something I enjoyed. I have played tennis and enjoy a game of golf, but I've never really excelled at anything else. I've always put all my efforts into my rugby. It's never been a chore, it's just something I love."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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