Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Thrusting Ben into midfield is asking a lot of winger

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Smith has been shifted even though he's barely discarded the international training wheels. Image / Rod Emmerson
Smith has been shifted even though he's barely discarded the international training wheels. Image / Rod Emmerson

He's built roughly like Conrad Smith, might go to the same barber, has the same surname of course, and plays the game with a similar knack and spirit.

But is Ben Smith really the next All Black centre, or is this a case of wishful thinking by the selectors, who have been left in a hole by their Super 15 teams?

It's a measure of the All Blacks' current supremacy, and what is starting to look like a near faultless player production line, that the radical move of switching B. Smith from wing to centre has drawn the sort of public reaction that greets minor changes to a bus timetable.

Yet it's hard to recall a greater slap in the face for ailing Australian rugby than this telegraphed move, in which a lightweight wing of no centre experience will strap on the L-plate for a Bledisloe Cup game.

A desperate All Black side would have persuaded Conrad Smith to stick around for one more game.

The Australians will do their utmost to aim their attacks at Smith on Saturday, although a rather thick form book says they will struggle to get enough front foot ball to threaten at Dunedin's hot house. Still, sweeping Quade Cooper towards Smith in the hope of drawing confused, hesitant defensive reactions is the obvious play. Inside centre Ma'a Nonu doesn't strike me as the ideal character to smooth B. Smith's passage either.

Smith has been sold a bit of a dud here. The selectors were bang on and then some in promoting him as a test wing, but their increasingly impressive track record means they've escaped much scrutiny over what must surely be regarded as a bolter.

Having surprised just about everybody by the extent of his test impact from the wing, Smith has been shifted even though he's barely discarded the international training wheels. The marvellous floating playmaker Cory Jane will make his comeback with the 27-year-old Smith in no position to defend his best position.

I interviewed Christian Cullen before the 2011 World Cup, and he was blunt in recalling the disappointment of 1999, when as the world's greatest fullback - and one of the best players of all time - he was shunted to centre at the World Cup. Cullen wanted to show the world what he could do at the peak of his powers, on the biggest stage, in his true position. Ben Smith still deserves this kind of consideration.

He's no Cullen, but then nobody is. But he might lay claim to being the form wing in world rugby, and that should carry some rights beyond expediency or the failure of the New Zealand game to produce centres.

For starters, Smith is small for a test centre, which requires more tackling and foraging than he is used to. He is listed at 85kg, and looks it. In the epic test win over South Africa at Ellis Park, Conrad Smith made or attempted a dozen tackles, Ben Smith only three. Centre is a more physical position than wing. The All Blacks' backline is also veering towards undersized, if Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Cory Jane are on the field.

Such is Conrad Smith's contribution and authority that Steve Hansen appears to have been seduced into seeking and manufacturing a carbon copy. Yet this was also a chance to up the ante at No 13, to bring in attacking power that the likes of Rene Ranger or Charles Piutau - who impresses in just about every limited test outing that he gets - can provide. If Hansen and friends have missed a trick, it was the failure to develop and encourage the France-bound Ranger who could have been an absolute test sensation and match-winner at centre.

Ben Smith will have few of the instincts Conrad Smith has built up over a long career, and will be targeted. The powerful Piutau looks destined to switch from fullback to centre for the Blues, and could be the better option down the line.

The bottom line: the chances are low that Smith will be a better test centre than a wing. The All Blacks might argue they have few options with Conrad Smith taking a break, but that also indicates a fault in their system. They certainly haven't got everything right. Opportunity knocks for Ben Smith on one hand, yet it also seems a tough call on him.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Read more by Chris Rattue

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