Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Role models mix it up for black jersey

Ben Smith can cover several positions but may settle at centre. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith can cover several positions but may settle at centre. Photo / Getty Images

Men who can fill a variety of positions are gold in the black uniform. They may not always be in the front line but they are equipped to answer any backline call from the bench to inject some late devil into a game or replace an injured team-mate.

In recent times, the All Blacks have been able to call on the enigmatic Isaia Toeava, a player bestowed with some tough descriptions to live up to but a useful All Black when hip injuries did not bite into his career.

'Ice' was whisked as a teenager out of minimal exposure in Auckland to the 2005 tour to Europe. The selectors wanted someone with loads of skill to spread across the backline. Toeava covered several roles, although his talents were best seen at fullback in his final years with the Blues.

He made his test debut in that role against Scotland, then had starts at centre and wing before he took his banged-up frame to Japan last year after 36 internationals. He's had repeat surgery on his hip and, if that fixes his ailment, Toeava should give strong value for his yen.

As he left, promoted All Black coach Steve Hansen was scanning the talent pool for men who could fill similar roles in his squad.

Tamati Ellison could mix and match in midfield, young Beauden Barrett had serious rugby gifts to throw into five-eighths, wing or fullback and now young Tom Taylor, a tour replacement with national rugby in his veins, could do the same.

Then there is Ben Smith, an outside back whose footwork and strategic eye lends itself to work in the back four. He has got enough speed from his sevens days and also appears to have the defensive side of his game sorted.

Is he a fullback, wing or centre? Does it matter? Probably not from an All Black perspective. His skills are a luxury within such a gifted squad and fit ideally into a three-man reserve group.

His versatility allows specialist halfback and five-eighths to stand by on the bench. But for Smith's progress and with an eye to the future, he may need to specialise a little more in his Super rugby work with the Highlanders.

When that squad was revealed, he was deemed a wing-fullback but, with no other specialist fullback in the group, that looks the position where Smith will settle.

He would then have Aaron Smith, Colin Slade, Ma'a Nonu, Ellison, Hosea Gear and another wing around him in backline riches which have not been the Highlanders' forte in recent times.

Smith is 25 and, with 11 tests in his sporting bank and touring riches to fall back on, he is ideally placed to push into a more regular test place.

Israel Dagg, Barrett, Andre Taylor, even Charles Piutau or Johnny McNicholl are stacking up as fullback talent, while Smith suggests he could be the man to stand by for his namesake Conrad at centre.

They have strikingly similar physiques and there is a hint of each other in their running patterns. Ben Smith also has the acumen to deal with the layers of control needed to fill all the demands of a top-class centre.

He sees the field well, he scans for plays where a mis-match is likely to open and also brings a defensive vision to his game. The more you see of his work, the more he suggests he is ready to job-share and eventually succeed Conrad Smith.

Other contenders such as Richard Kahui will want a say in that - if his chassis holds together next season - while who knows where Robbie Fruean's career will take him?

And who knows how long Conrad Smith's work will prosper? He is 31 and has taken some punishment in his 65-test career, though he has taken time out to refresh and is eyeing another World Cup.

Smith is bright and fearless enough to know when his time is up. That is somewhere down the line and when and where that happens will be a mixture of his production and the push from below.

For now, Ben Smith's versatility is gold but by 2015, he could be a regular in black.

- Herald on Sunday

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