Superman Ben Smith steps up to mark again
Ben Smith has been the biggest mover in the All Blacks ranks during the clean sweep of France.
A lot of attention has focused on the new faces in Steve Hansen's test ranks as the evolution of his squad gathers pace towards the defence of the World Cup.
But Smith has captured the spotlight with his classy play throughout the three tests. He's gone from being a part-timer to a first choice.
The All Blacks needed someone to step up with livewire wing-utility Cory Jane sidelined with his knee injury early in the season. Smith did just that.
He's cut from the same cloth as Jane - a slinky sevens star who likes to play fullback but is more than happy to take a wing's role in the All Blacks to get a start.
Somewhere along the way Rene Ranger picked up the moniker of Action Man but Smith deserves to be labelled the All Blacks' Superman right now.
His work rate and energy are unrivalled in this current squad.
Last night in New Plymouth he was everywhere. With the French employing a much busier kicking game, he was under fire. But he handled most bombs with aplomb and returned them with interest, either by reply kicking or running. His chasing game was also swift and enthusiastic.
Smith's try late in the first half was a crucial strike. It also demonstrated his special awareness. His early dive for the corner with two French players arriving in cover defence was a crucial factor in a crucial piece of finishing work.
His knowledge in the No 15 jersey means his combination with Israel Dagg is second nature.
There's been plenty of speculation that Smith's future might be at centre, given the looming break of his namesake Conrad Smith. With his cool head, undoubted intelligence and occasional play there for Otago and the Highlanders, there's little doubt he could handle that.
Thank goodness Smith was on top of his game last night because several of his team-mates weren't. That started at the top, with skipper Kieran Read completely out of character with handling errors plaguing him.
The scrum was sloppy, tackles were missed and other balls were dropped as the plucky French applied plenty of passion and no shortage of skills. The desperation factor in the All Blacks' defence was enough to cover up some blemishes and keep the French try-less for a second successive test.
The tourists were close in Auckland and their hiding in Christchurch certainly didn't reflect their worth. Last night their hustle and bustle again went without the reward it deserved on the scoreboard.
But they gave the All Blacks a decent wake-up ahead of their defence of the Rugby Championship.
Sunday Star Times