Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: 'Old boys' relish their second chances

Returning All Blacks Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith (background). Photo / Getty Images
Returning All Blacks Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith (background). Photo / Getty Images

Three years ago, "Tarms" and "Benda" made their All Black debut in the same test.

Now they are in the new and revisited wave of talent pushing to make a more permanent mark in the famous jersey.

Their journeys have been different with Tamati Ellison pushing off for a few years' duty in Japan and Ben Smith hovering but not quite getting his break.

They reunited this season in a combative Highlanders side and with lively squad halfback Aaron Smith, Adam Thomson and Andrew Hore, have pitched up in Auckland this week for the first of the All Black training camps.

"I don't feel as nervous this time. But still feel a bit of apprehension," said Ellison. He helped celebrate his roommate Ma'a Nonu's 30th birthday yesterday and will fly home tonight before returning with the Highlanders to tangle with Nonu and the Blues on Saturday at Eden Park.

It's been a jigsaw-type itinerary for Ellison since he left his Japanese club Ricoh this year and reached Dunedin on a Thursday and played the Chiefs the next day.

Were it not for a timely telephone call from Jamie Joseph last year, Ellison would have probably tried to return to the Hurricanes in the Super 15.

He still felt the pull to play top-level rugby in New Zealand and was battling to lift his enthusiasm in Japan.

"It was now or never really," he said.

Ellison wanted to play centre and Joseph offered that role with the Highlanders, while Conrad Smith held sway at the Hurricanes.

He said the Highlanders were a lean, mean, "not much bullshit" operation and that suited him while the lifestyle appealed to him, his wife, 3-year-old boy and 6-month-old daughter.

Ellison weighed in yesterday at 97kg and laughed as he wondered how long he could hide in midfield at that weight.

He and Smith have not suffered at all this season as they have driven much of the Highlanders' backline production and defence.

The pair started test rugby against Italy in November 2009, when Conrad Smith and Cory Jane were spelled on the end-of-year All Blacks tour.

Ben Smith had one further taste of life at the top when he got half an hour against Fiji in Dunedin last year but then missed the cut for the rest of the year and World Cup.

"There are a lot of good outside backs in New Zealand, it is a tough area to break into," he said. "You've got to work hard and keep plugging along."

Smith enjoys fullback but also offers the sort of versatility the All Blacks can use. That could prove useful soon with wings Jane and Richard Kahui both injured and out of the June tests.

"I'm hoping to get in the 30 first," he said.

"That puts an edge on things, but as players we just do out best when we get a chance try and impress.

"It's a privilege to come into these camps."

Smith is a PE student in Dunedin but his current focus is his rugby education.

"I need to work on decision-making from back, when I'm under the pump think more about kicking for corners instead of getting excited on counter-attack," he said.

- NZ Herald

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