O'Driscoll still world's best centre, insists Kiwi backs coach Smith
THE All Blacks cut a pretty relaxed picture as they went through their "recovery games" in Westmanstown Golf and Leisure Club yesterday.
A 15-a-side game of soccer was entered into with enthusiastic abandon on one of the artificial pitches and, if you were looking for parallels with their rugby displays, you could witness Dan Carter striking the ball with venomous accuracy, Richie McCaw getting away with persistent offside and Keven Mealamu putting his head to good use.
Their happy shouts were the soundtrack as Wayne Smith addressed the media pitch-side but there was a deadly seriousness to the New Zealand backs coach as he considered the abilities of Brian O'Driscoll, who leads the Irish out in search of a first win over the All Blacks this weekend.
When asked by a New Zealand journalist to assess Ireland's unconvincing November form and whether O'Driscoll was "a fading force" Smith was straight to the point.
"No, I don't think so. If you look at his contact skills, he is just as good as ever, he's got power and agility still," said Smith. "Brian O'Driscoll is probably the best midfielder in the world; they have got a world-class midfield in Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll.
"We had a look at their games. They will be disappointed with Samoa no doubt but they played pretty well against South Africa and could have pinched it. They have got a never-say-die attitude, that's what I like about them, so we expect they will be a lot better than they were against Samoa."
New Zealand flattened Scotland 49-3 on Saturday with a bewildering display of attacking brilliance but Ireland have been struggling to get their back-line moving this month. However, Smith is mindful of the four tries Ireland scored last June when down to 14 men in New Plymouth.
"They haven't been (expansive) in their last two games but if you look at the second half in New Plymouth they were pretty expansive, scored four tries, off-loaded a lot in the tackle and they were hard to handle.
"I think they just have to click. It's a fact of life that you can't always be at your best; our expectation is that they will be a lot better on Saturday," added Smith, who accepted that northern sides can sometimes get psyched out by the sight of the famous black jersey.
"Teams sometimes get carried away when they play the All Blacks, I think that happened with Scotland last week. There was too much talk about us before the game. That's what potential victory against the All Blacks does, they start thinking 'if we win this we're going to be legends', rather than actually doing the business."
Since his stunning, man-of-the-match display against Scotland, the hype surrounding centre Sonny Bill Williams has increased even further but Smith says the 25-year-old is not affected by all the attention.
"I'm not too sure if he's aware of it (the hype). He's very personable, very humble, he realises Ma'a (Nonu) and Conrad (Smith) are probably the top-ranked midfield in the world and he's keen to learn from them -- so he's got his feet on the ground.
"There are areas of his game he has to work at, but he's aware of that and, at the same time, he understands he has to work on what he's already good at. He made 15 tackles against Scotland, which was a big improvement on the England game and he's worked on his chasing game."
At 6ft 3ins and 17 stone, Williams is unusually large for a centre and Smith says the unorthodox, off-loading skills he picked up in rugby league set him apart from any other union centre.
"He's different to anything we've ever seen, it's not a usual rugby union style," Smith added. "But it's interesting for people and it's good for the team. The boys who are running in the tries are pretty happy about it, learning to understand the way he plays and read his body language.
"He's just so different to any skill-set we've seen before -- that ability to off-load, so consistently -- I haven't seen anyone like him before."