Ben Smith ignoring the stick and focusing on winning matches
All Black took four months away from game after five concussions and failed HIA
Ben Smith of the All Blacks makes a break during the win over England at Twickenham Stadium in London last week. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
“I’ve copped stick ever since really,” says Ben Smith turning to smile at Beauden Barrett. The All Black right wing, who started against England last week, shifts in his chair. Barrett beside him glances across with a grin.
Culture wars. Smith stepped away from the game for four months. All Blacks tend not to do that. Maybe it was because of the five concussions and a failed HIA that turned out to be not a sixth concussion but something else entirely.
Having turned down lucrative offers from Europe Smith had just signed a two year contract with New Zealand rugby. It was 2017 and the season would become a threat to his All Black career.
Two concussions at the beginning of the Highlanders campaign and then a fall in the first Test against the Lions in Eden Park started the pain. Smith failed the HIA and didn’t return to the game. It was later diagnosed as an inner ear problem. Still, he was looking at a career on the cusp of crash and burn.
In August last year he worked the letter of his contract and walked away from the game ostensibly to recover, allow his body regenerate without the rough and tumble of competition.
And here he is fresh, still in ownership of lightening pace, a 32-year-old bucking a trend that has seen so many of the great New Zealand backs opt out of the All Black system for lucrative offers in France and the UK while still in their 20s.
The list is long. Julian Savea left at 26-years-old for Toulon. He followed Doug Howlett (29) who ended up in Munster, Joe Rokocoko (27) played with Racing Metro. It was part of the great All Black retirement package.
As far back as 2003 crowds gathered in Cork airport for what was to be the signature of the decade with Christian Cullen, the Taranaki Express bringing silver fern glamour to Ireland’s rustic south west.
On January of this year, outhalf Lima Sopoaga confirmed he was leaving New Zealand to join English side Wasps this season. He was 26-years-old when he made that decision.
“It feels like a while ago now. It just felt like a good chance for me to step out of rugby for a wee bit,” says Smith. “I managed to have a good pre-season and a bit of time into getting my body right so that I could recharge and then try and contribute back to the teams I have been involved with. I think that has probably helped me yeah.”
This has always been sensitive territory for professional players. While the gentle tormenting Smith receives from his team mates is good natured, it sits at the interface of old school New Zealand rugby culture and health questions such as how many concussions are too many.
It seems an eminently intelligent decision to take time away. But current medical thinking may also question whether continuing playing is a smart one.
What has made others take notice is that the blooming Smith is part of Steve Hansen’s first team strike force. Against Ireland on Saturday, there are few expecting anything less than what people who know keep saying. Confrontational, body slamming and a dog fight for the ball.
He knows there will be a hard physical edge. He expects aerial collisions. He predicts Johnny Sexton launching high balls. No fear from Smith.
“Yeah, I think as Beaudie (Barrett) said if it started pissing down with rain, you can’t really get frustrated by that,” he says referring to the match against England last week.
“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. That’s what we have probably come to learn.
“Yeah, I think it’s going to be a big game and physicality is going to be a big part of it,” he adds. “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.”
Bragging rights are just part of it. Smith, in keeping with the All Black conveyor belt success and sense of invincibility fearlessly ramps up the ante.
“These games are very exciting. They’re the games you really want to be involved in. There are high stakes,” he says before adding some mischief.
“Whoever wins, this is the best team in the world right now.”
We will take that.