Conrad Smith endorses Ben for ABs centre role

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 16:25 17/06/2013
Israel Dagg
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ Zoom
All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg breaks a tackle in the second test.
Ben Smith
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
JACK OF ALL TRADES: Ben Smith may be moved to centre as Steve Hansen hunts for someone to replace Conrad Smith when he retires.
Conrad Smith
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SUCCESSION PLANNING: Conrad Smith could make way for Ben Smith at centre for the third test against France in New Plymouth.

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The master has endorsed his apprentice. Conrad Smith hasn't received the dreaded tap on the shoulder just yet, but he senses it is coming.

Naturally, returning to his New Plymouth roots, Smith is itching to finish off the French this week.

While All Blacks management aren't likely to make any local friends, Smith is well aware he could be about to make way for his namesake, Ben Smith, at centre.

With Dan Carter fit, Aaron Cruden stepping up with precision execution after his shaky outing in Auckland and Israel Dagg recapturing form, it also seems unlikely Taranaki's Beauden Barrett will get a start on his home patch at either first five-eighth or fullback. Nevertheless, he's sure to get a run from the bench.

"He's [Ben Smith] more than understanding of the position he's in," Hurricanes captain Smith said of his talented understudy.

"Like every young All Black he'd love to get a chance."

In bygone years being dropped was a slap in the face. These days - with genuine tours outdated like black boots - experimentation at test level is common practice.

Conrad Smith seems certain to be left out of the starting side this week, though it won't be for poor form.

The 68-test veteran has been his usual rock-solid self in the midfield. But with the series wrapped up in clinical fashion in Christchurch and his sabbatical, which will result in him skipping the end of year tour, nearing he understands All Blacks coach Steve Hansen needs to explore other options.

"He's always got a reason for doing things," the 31-year-old said of his coach today as rain bucketed down in New Plymouth.

"I can understand that logic. It would be tough to take but I'd understand. You've got to respect their decision. I trust them.

"I'd like to leave my break until the end of the year and not miss more games. The coaches have always been very good in explaining their decisions. I haven't had that conversation yet but I'd understand and take it.

"It's a game I'd love to play in. I've been fortunate enough to play in a couple here."

Until this point in his career, Ben Smith has predominantly been an outside back. After being the shining light for the Highlanders at fullback he almost single-handedly sealed the first test at Eden Park with a sublime break from the wing. The All Blacks, though, want to find out if he can create a long-term future in the No 13 jersey. Conrad reckons he is up to the task.

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"He's a great player," he said of Ben.

"Everyone can see that. It will be a change for him but it's something he's dealt with in the past. It's a different position and it takes some getting used to. He's more than capable of doing it. I'd love to help him out if that's what the coaches decide."

Smith Jr has started just once for the All Blacks - alongside Tamati Ellison against Scotland in Edinburgh last year - in the crucial role but he seems destined to double that this week.

"We know we're going to have an opportunity later in the year," All Blacks coach Ian Foster said.

"I guess in the next four or five months we'll wait and see how we want to progress that. Quite frankly Conrad is a pretty good teacher. These guys seeing what he does is also part of their learning curve." 

- Fairfax Media

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