Smith's vision at centre makes him one of the great players
VOICE OF REASONMARK REASON
Conrad Smith may just be playing his best rugby of a very considerable career.
Comparing Smith's performance against Italy at the weekend with, say, that of England's Manu Tuilagi was the equivalent of comparing Jacques Kallis' all-round cricket skills with James Franklin's.
Smith is the best centre in the world by quite some distance.
Tuilagi is a brutal man who doesn't pass, doesn't cover space and cannot see past the few blades of grass in front of his nose.
In contrast, I have always enjoyed watching Smith because he sees so much, often before it has actually happened.
Of course, foresight can be something of a curse.
In Smith's case, his ability to predict the future means he has to do a painful amount of running. Smith is such a competitive bugger that he is always rushing across to the next prophesied emergency. It can be exhausting just watching him.
In the first half in Rome he chased one kick down and then ran 40 metres back into position to support the counter-attack on the outside. His reward was to be bashed hard, as he took and gave a perfect pass to Ma'a Nonu.
At the end of the half, Smith forced a bad pass by stepping up quickly onto the receiver. He then tackled the Italian flanker who had received the pass, took down Sergio Parisse in the next phase of play, then hauled down Mirco Bergamasco, rose from the bottom of a ruck, saw the Italian No 9 breaking a tackle, ran back to cover and batted away a pass that may well have led to a try. At this point I emptied the tube of vitamin tablets and went off for a massage.
Mike Gibson, the great Ireland and Lions centre, always likes to see how much running is done off the ball when he watches a game. If you spend 80 minutes watching Robbie Fruean followed by 80 minutes watching Smith, you get an idea of just why the All Blacks management value Smith so highly.
Wayne Smith says: "Conrad is one of the most complete players I've ever coached, on and off the field. He's a leader in the best sense. Instead of pointing out problems, he creates solutions. He marshals the outside defence brilliantly. He stalks the attackers and then pounces like a cat.
"Perhaps his greatest strength is that he gets stronger during a match while other players become fatigued. He may not be the quickest at kickoff, but by the end of the match he will be.
"He has to be the fittest in the world in his position. He ran 4.26 in a 1500m time trial, which for a 98kg man is pretty bloody good.
"He's won 90 per cent of the test matches he has played in, because he is as competitive a man as you will ever coach. He wants to win the whole time and that need creates a hunger in the people around him."
New Zealand's first 10 points in Rome were all down to Smith. The opening penalty came about because Smith twice rescued a move that was floundering. The All Blacks' opening try was a hymn to Smith's smartness.
When Aaron Cruden decided to abort a midfield move and step inside, five Italian players were nearer to the ball than Smith. Yet Smith's ability to read the development of the next phase of play got him to the loose ball first, picking it up off the toes of Sergio Parisse who was convinced he was about to hack a kick downfield.
The next to react was Kieran Read. The intelligence of the interaction between Read and Smith was evident on three or four occasions. This time it led to a try. Smith ran a perfect line and then stepped right and left, turning the Italian fullback.
Before he had recovered, Smith passed to Read, who shifted his running line into the space created. It was an exquisite score.
This is one of the joys of watching the All Blacks, particularly for a northern hemisphere man. There is so much dumb football up north. For the past 30 years Britain has regarded size as the solution to back play. Wales even crowed about their power ahead of a World Cup final they never reached.
But New Zealand invest in skill. Dan Carter was a wee boy in junior rugby. Smith played halfback at school. Aaron Smith is tiny compared to a lot of modern halfbacks. And what a footballer Cory Jane is.
I have heard some worries about who might play 13 when Smith retires, but if Richard Kahui cannot avoid injury, I am sure that Jane has all the necessary talents. One drawback of the little man is he gets bashed up a bit.
Smith has suffered a broken leg, a ruptured Achilles, a detached retina and a nose so badly smashed there was a fear the bone could pierce the brain. And still he loves the game.
When Smith broke a tibia and fibula in 2006 he worked on improving his passing. At that point in his career he had a tendency to sway away when passing, the old British public school style that made it harder to support. Immobile because of his broken leg, Smith sat at a table working hard at passing with just his hands and arms.
That is a measure of Conrad Smith, one of the great players in world rugby, a man who doesn't always get the credit he deserves.
Mark Reason is a sportswriter formerly with the Times of London and Daily Telegraph in the UK. He now lives in Wairarapa
- © Fairfax NZ News
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