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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

Gloriously old-school Ben Smith is one of the world's greatest players

The New Zealand fullback spent a gap year working and playing in Bristol.

Murray Kinsella reports from Pennyhill Park

BEN SMITH LOOKS more like an IT technician than one of the world’s best rugby players, and that’s meant with no disrespect to Information Technology.

It’s part of the appeal of the New Zealand fullback, that he’s not a hulking giant or a sun-kissed Adonis from the Southern Hemisphere, and that is meant with no disrespect to Smith.

Ben Smith celebrates Smith is a scintillating player. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He’s one of the most outrageously skillful rugby players on this planet, an incredibly rounded and effective fullback or wing. A superstar of the game, even if his brand doesn’t carry the same weight as those of many of his teammates.

You get the sense that Smith doesn’t really care that he’s not always in the limelight. This pasty, freckly, brilliantly-normal-looking guy from Dunedin just loves playing ball.

Smith was far from a superstar in his younger years, playing solid rugby for King’s High School but never looking like a certainty to go on to great things. Just a skinny white kid who had decent skills.

There were no New Zealand Schoolboy caps, no Super Rugby franchises scrabbling around to convince him to join after he left school. Instead, Smith headed to England on a gap year after leaving King’s High School, landing in Bristol for a year.

“I went to Colston’s Collegiate School and spent a bit of time playing rugby but doing anything that the school needed,” said Smith at New Zealand’s training base in the plush Pennyhill Park this afternoon.

“I went to the office and helped with PE lessons, pretty much filled the gap wherever it was needed. It was more the chance to get away from New Zealand and explore the world, then go back and get stuck into university.

“I really enjoyed my time over here up in Bristol.”

Britain Rugby WCup New Zealand Smith is sporting a hint of a black eye at present. Source: Christophe Ena

The year in Colston’s just about sums up the gloriously old-school vibe around the man his teammates call ‘Bender’. He comes cross as unaffected by what he has achieved in the game, a stark contrast to the egos of some professional sportspeople.

Nothing beats playing for New Zealand at senior Test level, but you sense that Smith enjoyed his run-outs during the year in Bristol almost as much as he does beating defenders at the World Cup.

“It was a bit more of a social team, I played for the Old Colstonians RFC,” said Smith.

There was a mixture of guys that were 19 or 20 to late 30s, some in the early 40s. Some guys took it a bit more seriously than others and some of the guys just enjoyed getting into the club on a Saturday night and having a beer.

“It was good playing with a good bunch of mates that enjoyed their footy. I more came over for the experience than to play the rugby.”

Back home in New Zealand in 2006, Smith put his head down and began to take rugby more seriously, standing out for Green Island on the Dunedin club scene, still an out-half at that point.

As Smith added a bit more muscle to his previously slight 6ft 1ins frame, he started to get noticed and by 2008, a 22-year-old Smith was making his ITM Cup debut for Otago. A year later, he was a starter for the Highlanders in Super Rugby.

Australia New Zealand Rugby Smith is superb in the air. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The previously raw talent became polished at a rapid rate and Smith made his Test debut against Italy in November 2009. There have been disappointments, such as being overlooked for on the 2011 World Cup, but Smith has become one of the globe’s leading players since.

The 2013 World Player of the Year nominee is vitally important to Steve Hansen’s New Zealand, as he has demonstrated in recent weeks.

From his exceptionally assured fielding of the high ball, to scything counter-attacks, to muscular cover defence and a physical output that belies his 94kg mass, Smith is a truly complete player.

Echoing his Kiwi teammates this week ahead of Saturday’s World Cup final against Australia, Smith didn’t say too much else of interest this afternoon in Pennyhill Park, but we can forgive him that.

This Dunedin lad does his talking on the pitch.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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