Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Next Smith just like last one

The comparison is likely to be made a lot. It could become tedious, but probably not: Ben Smith will gladly accept comparisons with his namesake Conrad - but only if they are genuine and beyond the superficial.

It's easy at the moment to compare the two - both naturally lithe athletes whose respective games are built on timing, footwork and footballing smarts. And they have the same surname.

But Conrad is world-class - proven world-class - and deceptively more powerful and physically robust than is often perceived. Ben Smith would love to have the same depth to his game. He'd love to have the same defensive presence, the same innate understanding of how to command the midfield and bring the back three into the game.

"It does inspire me a bit watching Conrad," says Smith. "We are similar-shaped athletes I suppose and he uses his footwork and a bit more of his smarts.

"That's the thing I'd like to take out of his game - to make sure I use my footwork and that I am smart when I see a gap about how to get through it."

And for now, that's where Ben Smith would like to halt comparisons. If they are to continue, he knows he has to earn that right - to deliver performances that establish him as the next in line to the No13 jersey.

End of year tours are often the scene for transition - shifts in pecking orders and tactical thinking. By the end of this one, Smith's emergence as a potential successor at centre may be one of the bigger elements.

There is, of course, back in New Zealand a chap by the name of Richard Kahui who may yet feature in this cosy little scenario. Kahui has long had designs on being the next All Black centre.

The thing is, though, his physically robust and abrasive game as well as excellence under the high ball and defensive clout make him almost better suited to wing.

It's unlikely the All Blacks will deviate in the immediate future from having a direct, line-breaking No12, which is why this coaching panel are being drawn to the two Smiths at centre: they need balance in their midfield, individuals who use guile and timing. They need a distributor and organiser at centre and they need Smith to make a statement that he is ready to be that man.

The big picture is not, however, something Smith has given any thought.

"I just look at it [test against Scotland] as an opportunity to wear the black jersey and to get out there on Sunday and do the best job I can.

"If I do that, it might give me another opportunity. I haven't had many opportunities, so I have to make the most of this."

It's apparent Smith is willing and able to remain patient in his quest to break through. That's partly because such qualities are inherent in his nature and partly because he knows the value of waiting.

Dunedin-born and bred, the 26-year-old has shown enormous loyalty to his home town - having stuck with Otago and the Highlanders through thin and little thick.

It was challenging at times - nearly all the time - and there were ample opportunities to shift. But he turned them down, even the chance to head offshore last year. He was one of the players former All Black coach Graham Henry had in mind when he aired his disappointment about young men who give things a go for a while, only to give up their dream when foreign suitors come with cash.

Smith gave it ample thought and then decided it would be crazy to leave - his time would come if he continued to work hard. Now, the next stage of his career will be shaped by how, or indeed if, he chooses to convert from a utility back to specialist centre.

His versatility won him his spot in the squad but now he can set himself up for longer, as a starter not too far down the track, if he can become a quality, specialist centre.

"It is good to keep my options open but at some stage I am going to have to decide to move to the midfield or to make a [different] choice," he says. "I can certainly see myself moving in more than moving out and becoming a midfielder. I think the big difference is that you make a lot more tackles in the midfield, as you're in the defensive line. Giving others opportunities and space is another big difference.

"When you're a fullback, you're looking to do the penetration yourself and get across the advantage line. But at centre, you have to set up other people a bit more - take the gap when it's there - but make sure you're setting up the outsides, that your distribution is good."

- Herald on Sunday

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