Centre tells Hugh Farrelly how the All Blacks' frightening array of game-breakers are just getting into their stride
IT has been said, rather uncharitably, that the only good thing to come out of New Plymouth is the road to Wellington.
However, this rain-lashed town on the wild west coast of New Zealand's north island has managed to produce something more commendable than the quickest way out of there -- Conrad Smith, arguably one of the top five outside-centres to have played the game.
The All Blacks are in town, with the usual accompanying aura of excitement that confirms their status as rugby's rock stars, but, while the majority of eyelash-batting is directed towards the headline acts of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and the new kid on the block, Sonny Bill Williams, Smith lingers backstage with the ability to steal the show.
Known as 'The Snake' for his ability to glide through gaps in the manner of Jeremy Guscott at his peak, Smith (who turned 29 last month) has the intelligence and footballing ability to make those incursions count.
He destroyed Ireland last June with two tries and numerous line-breaks and -- even allowing for the fact that they were down to 14 men -- it was a special performance for him in every sense. Born 70 miles away in the small town of Hawera, Smith and his family moved to New Plymouth when he was a child and, though now living in Wellington, where he plays for the Hurricanes, he gets home as often as he can.
"I love it there, it is a bit quiet, you wouldn't go there for a stag do or anything like that but it's a beautiful part of the world -- the Wind Wand, the beautiful mountain in the background, it's pretty special," says Smith.
"There's a very strong sense of community in New Plymouth, provincial pride is pretty strong -- I think because it's isolated. It's not really on the way to anywhere, it's not somewhere you just pass through, that makes you pretty passionate. The people there usually settle there for a long time, you either love the place or you don't live there.
"My dad and grandfather were dairy farmers but dad's older brother kicked him off the farm because they couldn't both have it, so dad joined the police and that's when we moved to town. We've still got a family farm there, I used to go there on holidays and still get back when I can to see the family."
Smith moved to Wellington to study law when he left school and his rugby career proceeded the way he always hoped and dreamed it would, through Wellington, the Hurricanes and on to his first All Blacks cap when just 23. And, although injuries have limited his Test haul to a relatively paltry 43, Smith's quality has never been in question.
On Saturday, he is set to come up against another man regularly tagged as the best outside-centre in the game and, though Brian O'Driscoll has struggled to make an impact this November, Smith holds the Irish captain in the highest regard -- as a person and player.
"He is superb. They were writing him off a few years ago and then the way he played on that Lions tour last year ... it shows what a champion he is. I love that about the guy," he says.
"He has got so much to his game -- people think they have got him worked out but because he is so versatile he then shows another part of his game.
"Not long after I started playing for the All Blacks, he was over in New Zealand with the Lions (in 2005) and obviously got injured and I wasn't playing because Tana (Umaga) was starting. I got to know Brian over a few nights out and a few beers. A great guy."
After losing to Australia in Hong Kong at the start of their tour, the All Blacks struggled to see off a doughty English effort in Twickenham. Then they clicked.
Scotland were destroyed 49-3 in Murrayfield, with Smith scoring a typically exquisite try, and, worryingly for Ireland, he reckons there is more to come.
"We've had a good week. It's always easy playing in a side that's fizzing like we were against Scotland. I think we could have put any 15 from our squad out and we would have looked good.
"We always struggle in our first game over here, we might win but I don't think we've ever had an opening tour game where we've really hit our stride, it's always been in the second or third game where we've played really well. Maybe it's the travel and the adjustment but once you get into the tour, as we have now, you're ready."
But he doesn't buy the perception (publicly, at least) that the Irish are there for the taking. The Kiwi fans are definitely dismissive of the Irish -- as was the case last summer when Ireland's efforts were accompanied by a plethora of Guinness and Leprechaun gags and headlines such as "Shameful Seamuses" after Jamie Heaslip's red card.
"Yeah, we're aware of that (lack of respect among Kiwi fans). It's difficult, because when people back home don't respect these teams, the perception is that the players don't, but that could not be further from the truth. We have a lot of respect for the sides up here, the Irish especially."
Keven Mealamu's suspension, the common consensus among opponents that their captain McCaw gets away with murder and the annual controversy surrounding the Haka has created some negative media coverage, but Smith is unperturbed. "It doesn't bother me, it's nothing new. We're used to putting up with a fair bit of criticism, not so much here in Ireland but when we get to England it's pretty fierce.
"We just worry about our own jobs. It's a small minority saying these things and we pack stadiums with people who want to see us play so we're obviously doing something right -- that's my view. There's a lot more people that enjoy the Haka and watching us play than get on our cases. Taranaki has a strong link to the Maori culture and when you dream about being an All Black, you want to do the Haka before you start a Test. We know that people enjoy it and it's a special part of the game."
And so to Saturday. For all his undoubted brilliance, Smith's place in the starting XV is no longer guaranteed since the emergence of the remarkable Williams and the continued excellence of Ma'a Nonu. It was Williams who set up Smith's try last weekend with one of his outrageous offloads and his skill levels and potential for wreaking havoc on opposition defences are causing even his team-mates to step back in awe.
"Sonny comes from league, where those one-handed off-loads are a lot bigger, he's brought something different to our game. The scary thing is that he's still learning and will be a better player in the future."
Nonu, Smith and now Williams -- scary does not begin to describe it.