Gifford: Conrad Smith shows why he's priceless

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 00:11 08/06/2014
Conrad Smith
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SIZE NO MATTER: Slightly built Conrad Smith takes on the huge English forward pack.

conrad smith
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AT THE DEATH: Conrad Smith touches down for the All Blacks in the corner.
Conrad Smith
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ Zoom
An elated Conrad Smith after diving over for the match-winning try in the 78th minute.

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OPINION: Back in 1973 an England side that was supposed to be crap in boots came to Eden Park, and beat the All Blacks 16-10.

A laconic, likeable 25-year-old from Papakura called Bob Lendrum was fooled by the bounce of the ball near his line and England scored the winning try. The poor guy never darkened an All Black changing room door again.

Last night a sell out crowd watched slightly dumbfounded as an England team so full of anonymous players they could probably have run blank spaces instead of pictures in the pen portrait section of the programme, gave every indication of being here to win.

By comparison the All Blacks spluttered like a V8 left for too long in the garage without a decent run.

But the All Black selectors won't be sacking anyone after last night's great escape, and in fact they might instead gather the players around at the first training run in Dunedin and briefly pay homage to Conrad Smith.

There are really two Conrad Smiths. One is the academically gifted man with the law degree, who has taken a lot of his rare spare time in recent years to help raise funds for an orphanage in a tiny village in Kenya.

This is the quick witted Conrad Smith who, asked on air a few years if he could think of a clean lawyer joke, barely paused before replying: "Yeah, a senior partner in a law firm is asked what a fair hourly rate would be to charge for a lawyer who had actually being playing a round of golf. He replied, 'Was the player a partner or a junior brief?'"

Then there's the Conrad Smith who brings to mind all the lineage that comes from being part of a Taranaki footy family. Wellington may have given him his degree, but you'd guess the Naki gave him the grit, that so often sees him playing like a broken nosed, wild eyed loose forward trapped in a back's body.

You'd expect an All Black test to feature a big, powerful man of Samoan descent slashing through tackles in the midfield.

What was weird last night was the player involved, the wonderfully named Manusamoa Tuilagi, was wearing a white jersey with a red rose.

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Tuilagi has a centre of gravity so low his backside almost scrapes the ground, but he's also explosive and direct.

Who was having to deal with him? Right first time. Conrad Smith. He couldn't pin the man down (it's doubtful much short of an armed response could) but he shadowed him well enough to make sure Tuilagi never took the game out of sight for the All Blacks.

I'm one who has been ecstatic about the form of Malakai Fekitoa this year, but even in my most starry eyed moments I've never advocated dropping Smith for him.

Last night, when there was every chance of a massive upset, Smith showed just why. There was a brilliant sense of reward for all the dirty, painful work he had to do all night that he was the man who dived, a smile on his face in mid air, for the try that sealed the game.

A real chance of attitude has come into the England camp since Stuart Lancaster, a coach with Clive Woodward's tactical sense, minus the loopiness, took over.

There are still big, grinding forwards, although by the look of the handling skills of David Wilson and Joe Marler there's a little way to go for their play in the open to match the way they wrestle and scrap in the tight.

What's improved out of sight is that the England backs no longer look startled at the sight of the ball going through several pairs of hands without being kicked.

If this is how a series being described here before it started as boring, one sided and farcical begins, what can we expect when England field a full strength team?

- Stuff

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