Monday 23 September 2019

Versatile Smith refreshed and ready for Kearney aerial battle

New Zealand’s Ben Smith is feeling sharp after taking a sabbatical from the game. Photo: Sportsfile
New Zealand’s Ben Smith is feeling sharp after taking a sabbatical from the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Ben Smith lets out a rueful laugh as he is asked about the sabbatical he took last year.

While it remains an alien concept in this part of the world, taking time out of the game is often written into the contracts of New Zealand internationals.

Having suffered a couple of concussions, fears had grown that Smith, one of the finest back-three players of this generation, was stepping away due to the series of head knocks.

It was later revealed, however, that it was always part of the plan and after missing eight Tests to allow his body to rejuvenate, the 32-year-old is now back in situ and a mainstay in the All Blacks team.

It was often suggested that the likes of Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien would have benefited from taking a similar break, but until more players in the northern hemisphere consider it, asking them to miss big games for club and country is never likely to go down well.

Smith, however, is an excellent case study in how to prolong one's career. And now back in the fold, he looks as sharp as ever.

"I've copped stick ever since really," the full-back/winger laughs.

"It feels like a while ago now but it just felt like a good chance for me to step out of rugby for a wee bit.

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"I managed to have a good pre-season and put a bit of time into getting my body right so that I could recharge and then try and contribute back to the teams I'm involved with. I think that has probably helped me."

Smith's versatility has been a major part of the All Blacks' success in recent years.

His performances rarely dip below an 8/10 and his ability to cover the back-field has long been up there with the best in the world.

In the immediate aftermath of Ireland's win over Argentina last weekend, Joe Schmidt pointed to the joy that England got in targeting Damian McKenzie in the air in a similar manner that the Pumas did with Jordan Larmour.

From that end it would be somewhat of a surprise if Smith didn't revert to full-back to counteract Ireland's aerial threat, with Rob Kearney also set to return in the 15 jersey.

"I'm not too sure what they're doing with their team, but Rob's a great player, great in the air," Smith says of Kearney.

"It's a great challenge, there's probably going to be a lot of that (aerial) play - depending on conditions.

"The referees are doing a great job in that area. I think the way the game's going, players are aware there needs to be a bit of work done to make sure you do a good job and make sure the back-three can compete and get up in the air."

That potential aerial battle between the two veterans would be one of the many fascinating sub-plots at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

It took the All Blacks time to adjust to the wet conditions in Twickenham and if the Irish weather throws up something similar, Smith knows that his side must adapt quicker.

"If it started p*****g down with rain, you can't really get frustrated by that," Smith maintains.

"You have to try and enjoy the occasion when it is like that and the opportunity if it is your job to chase a few kicks, you have to enjoy that or to receive them, you have to enjoy that type of game. That's what we have probably come to learn.

"These games are very exciting, they're the games you really want to be involved in.

"There are high stakes and as has been mentioned, probably whoever wins this is the best team in the world right now, so it's a massive challenge for this team, but it's one the group is pretty excited about. We know what we're up against, it's a great Irish team, so we know what it's all about.

"I think it's going to be a big game and physicality is going to be a big part of it. I think a big thing for us is going to be our discipline and I'm sure they will be the same. That's just part of it."

Smith echoed Steve Hansen's thoughts that Saturday's winners can call themselves the best team in the world, and while Joe Schmidt won't get sucked into that kind of talk, there is no doubting the confidence Ireland would take from a victory ahead of the World Cup.

"I suppose it will be good to get momentum going into next year's World Cup so this game obviously helps with that," Smith adds.

"We actually lost a Bledisloe Cup game before 2015 leading into that World Cup. I think the group is in a good spot and we're just enjoying each challenge as it comes."

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