Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Smith's a tough act to follow

Hard-working and astute centre will be hard to replace when he takes a recuperative test break next year.

Man of the match Conrad Smith offloads during a commanding performance in the Italy test at Stadio Olimpico.  Photo / Getty Images
Man of the match Conrad Smith offloads during a commanding performance in the Italy test at Stadio Olimpico. Photo / Getty Images

The damage to Conrad Smith's eye and his commanding performance in Rome told the story of why the All Black centre needs a break later next year and how much he'll be missed when he takes it.

Smith, who has extended his contract until 2014, is likely to skip next year's end of season pilgrimage to the Northern Hemisphere and instead rest a body that is in need of recuperation after nine seasons of test football. His absence will be a significant blow for the All Blacks - this is a man who will be as hard as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw to replace.

Smith was man of the match in Rome, an award he picked up for his astute use of the ball and his rock-solid defence that was excellent in technique and awareness.

Without his ability to read the play, to shut down space and not be lulled by the clever decoys the Italians used, the All Blacks might have been in bigger trouble. It took all of Smith's experience, all of his innate understanding of where the play was going, to be as effective as he was.

Italy, known for their work at the set-piece in the collisions, were innovative and creative with the ball, and against a lesser centre than Smith they may have greatly prospered in that critical wide channel that is so hard to defend.

"We knew they were going to play and I was impressed with the variety of their attacking play," said Smith. "They were as good as any team I have played this year. There was no predictability about them - you never knew where they were going and they obviously got go-forward ball that helped.

"Their 9 and 10s read the game really well and whether they went round the fringes or looked for width they seemed to have a really good game sense. So there was a lot of work on defence for us."

The value of Smith is his ability to conduct real-time game analysis, to be aware of how the test is trending as it unfolds. That's what sets him apart - the bit his chosen understudy Ben Smith wasn't able to do so well against Scotland the previous week.

It's an unfair comparison as Smith senior has had 64 caps to learn his craft and understand the ebb and flow of test football. That experience is priceless and came to the fore in Rome as Smith preached patience.

The game was stuck for periods - the All Blacks unable to make passes stick or get gain-line ascendancy, but all the time Smith was urging those around him to stay calm.

"That's what happens when teams put you under pressure: you have to [not show frustration] and be patient. We talked about that during the week, we still did that at times, but ultimately after 65 minutes because we'd kept playing at pace we were able to score a few tries that probably inflated the scoreline beyond what was fair."

A nasty-looking bruise and cut under Smith's eye was a sign of the physicality of the contest and a sharp reminder that he's taken a pounding in his career.

A career that may go on hold next year - a temporary respite to give him a chance to maintain his place as arguably the world's best centre.


Southern comfort

The weekend's test results:
Samoa 26 Wales 19

New Zealand 42 Italy 10
Australia 20 England 14
South Africa 21 Scotland 10
France 39 Argentina 22

- NZ Herald

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