Ben Smith still a work in progress for All Blacks
MARC HINTON IN TOKYO
The mere fact that Ben Smith is even in Japan this week suggests the All Blacks are still evolving his game as a stop-gap centre while his namesake is away on an extended honeymoon break.
In a perfect world Smith, who has started every test for the All Blacks in 2013, would have been part of the group still kicking them up at home and heading direct to Paris on Friday.
He's more than earned that right with a heavy workload and growing importance in the backline, and it was definitely an option weighed heavily by the coaches.
But Smith is being challenged to continue to evolve his game in the national setup. By Steve Hansen's reckoning - and just about everyone else's, for that matter -- the standout back of the Rugby Championship (where he played exclusively on the right wing), he was moved in to centre for the third Bledisloe in Dunedin, and will almost certainly wear the No 13 jersey for the big tests on this tour.
Clearly the 27-year-old Dunedinite is still a work in progress as a midfielder, and that's why he's here in Tokyo this week as a pared-back All Blacks squad stop off for a "development" test en route to Paris.
Smith's performance at centre against the Wallabies in Dunedin - just his second start there for the All Blacks - was not quite the runaway success the selectors would have been hoping for.
He was solid more than spectacular and is clearly still developing the feel and instinct for the position that has been an earmark of his play out wide throughout this undefeated test year.
Thus he's asked to play another test (his 23rd in total), at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening (NZ time), and to continue to work on his play in the distribution role.
While Conrad Smith is enjoying his post-nuptial break, it's Ben Smith who must find the combination with Ma'a Nonu in the midfield if this perfect test year is to be achieved.
"I'm learning as I go, and there's a wee bit I have got to pick up but I think every match I play I'll start to pick up a few things and hopefully get better," said Smith who's expected to be named at No 13 in the All Blacks team to be named overnight.
He said he had enjoyed playing a test in his home town, but admitted the change in position had created a "learning curve" he's still coming to terms with.
But no one should doubt the young man's ability to make a success of the role. Look at how he's owned the right wing spot hitherto, scoring 11 tries in the nine tests prior to Dunedin, and an incredible eight in the six Rugby Championship clashes.
It's a selection gamble to move him from a position he's played so well in, but Hansen is clearly eager to establish the Otago utility man as one of those players you find room for, no matter what the number on his back.
Smith was enjoying having a look round busy and bustling Tokyo which he described as "cool" and "something different" but he was even more keen to cross swords with his Highlanders team-mate, halfback Fumiaki Tanaka, on Saturday.
"Fumi is a good wee player, he's pretty feisty, and I know playing with him at the Highlanders he likes to mix it up and get amongst it," said Smith who has a fair idea how the Japanese will play it.
"They like to play it pretty quick, to get that ball straight out of the breakdown and to play with speed and then mix it up with a good kicking game."
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said the different style of the Japanese, who would not be guided by ill head coach Eddie Jones this week, was a major factor in preparations.
"We've done little bit of work on what we think they'll throw at us defensively, so we've got a couple of variations, but we're also going to have some new combinations so this week the focus is on just cementing some of the running lines we've been doing and maybe improving our option-taking as we go through the game.
"There's a little bit of the unknown but hopefully we'll learn well through this game," added Foster.
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