Ben Smith won't get carried away with victory
Ben Smith loved the spirit and the unity, but the Highlanders co-captain wasn't quite ready to join Dunedin's scarfie fraternity in launching into a full-blown celebration of a new era.
As the students spent Saturday night in the southern city toasting the dawn of a new university year, Smith preferred to keep things a bit more on the down-low after a fabulous 29-21 victory over the Blues to open their Super Rugby campaign.
Sure, there was plenty to be excited about from the Highlanders' perspective, not the least of which is that the rugby folk of the south at last appear to have a group with fortitude, togetherness, passion and no little pride in their jersey.
"We've talked about playing for a bit of respect and playing for the group of guys who are in that changing-room, but it's only a start. We've got a big game next week [in Hamilton] and this is only a first game," Smith said after the bonus point victory at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The 27-year-old star All Black of 2013 is an inspired choice as co-skipper (alongside Nasi Manu) of this largely no-name group of players who comprise the Highlanders this year. He's a local lad (Kings High schooled), a fabulous player at the peak of his powers and a fellow who keeps things about as real as anyone you'll find in the New Zealand game.
In fact, it was reassuring to hear him remind the public that all the Highlanders have done thus far is take one firm, loping stride in the right direction.
That first 40 minutes in front of a boisterous crowd of 15,500 was electric as the Highlanders ran in three tries to burst to a 24-0 lead. They attacked with intent, defended magnificently and harried the Blues into a succession of schoolboy errors.
And, granted, after the bitter disappointment of last year's three-win season when all those big-name recruits so patently failed to deliver on their pedigree, it was refreshing to see a much less recognisable Highlanders outfit play with so much more spark.
But Smith's been here before as Highlanders teams of 2011 and 2012 began with similar promise, and he's an experienced enough head now to understand that it only really means something in this competition when you can harness and sustain all that early endeavour.
"It's pretty big for us after our season last year and to get a win early gives us a bit of confidence. But we've got a big game next week at the Chiefs so we've got to get our recovery right, and our preparation right for that game," he said.
"We just know we've got to play for each other. We love playing here at Forsyth Barr and with a crowd like that it's pretty special. We want to put on a good performance. But there are definitely things to improve on. We'll do that this week and try to be better going into the Chiefs game."
The Highlanders perhaps eased off a little in the second spell and allowed the Blues to gather enough momentum to at least threaten, if not execute, a comeback. But the positives far outweighed the negatives, as the southerners showed excellent strike-power, solid defensive organisation and an ability to disrupt and dominate in and around the breakdown.
With most of their internationals having been shed in an off-season purge, it was important that the Smiths, Ben and halfback Aaron, set the tone for the Highlanders last night. They both did so splendidly, with coach Jamie Joseph declaring: "I was really proud of those two guys. Everyone was stepping up, it was the first game of the season and our two All Blacks led by their performance. When that happens things tend to fall into place like they did for the first 40."
Smith admitted the leadership mantle sat well with him.
"I enjoyed the role. I'm learning as I go, but it's a good start for both myself and Nasi. We want to play for each other, and when it's on the line like that we need to dig in and work hard for each other," he said.
"A win builds that confidence, and it shows when we get our structures right we can be dangerous. But we're up against it next week, against a very good Chiefs team, and then we've got a bye week so we'll throw everything at it."
Onwards and upwards. Meantime the party rolls on in the north of Dunedin.
- Fairfax Media
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