Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Conrad Smith's pace and bounce

Combative centre says psychology is key in top-flight rugby encounters. By Wynne Gray.

Conrad Smith says rugby brings out his competitive instincts more than any other sport he has played.  Photo / Getty Images
Conrad Smith says rugby brings out his competitive instincts more than any other sport he has played. Photo / Getty Images

As a sports-mad schoolboy, Conrad Smith's talents shone most at cricket.

He was primarily a fast bowler whose natural outswing pushed him into various rep sides in Taranaki.

"I was reasonably quick and opened up the throttle off a long run," he chuckled. "I loved it and I guess that was the closest you got in cricket to getting the same sort of physical rush you do in rugby.

"It was a bit of a buzz trying to unsettle the batsmen down the other end."

Former first-class quick Ali Jordan was his rep coach and the man responsible for giving Smith his "Snakey" nickname.

"We were coming back from a tournament and Ali wondered why I didn't have a nickname like most of the others. So he decided I should be called Snake because of the way he thought I fielded in the covers, diving and slithering round on the grass.

"Everyone thought it was ridiculous, but it stuck."

Smith's father used to regale him with stories of Jordan's skill and fire in club and provincial cricket.

"He came with a reputation and just having him as coach, you could see he was a fiery cookie. He was a great coach," Smith recalled. "I remember we had Marty Crowe and Paddy Greatbatch in the Central Districts region, but we didn't have many bowlers."

Smith continued cricket through school, but ditched it when he moved to Wellington for his university studies.

By then his main interest had shifted to rugby though he still enjoys some social cricket or a net with his brother when he gets back to Taranaki.

On tour with the All Blacks, he likes to watch cricket with Andrew Hore and Kieran Read, who are keen followers of the summer sport.

While his interest in the leather and willow remains, Smith found his true passion lay more on the rugby fields.

"I did not have quite the same fire for cricket as I did for rugby," he said. "My physique never really worried me and I played halfback through my first XV days at school. I knew I was small, but I wanted to play rugby so it was just a case of what position I would fill.

"I think the physicality suited my personality. Even though I am not someone to mix it up, I am someone who just loves the whole contest and the feeling of going to war, as someone once suggested about rugby.

"I am a competitive person and those juices get a bit stronger when I play rugby than it does in any other sport."

Smith is still enthralled by cricket, but balks at giving any advice to New Zealand coach John Wright.

"I know enough about cricket to understand it is a cruel sport. I would never judge anyone who plays it. The mind games in that sport are cruel. It is a very tough individual sport within a team game and I love watching it.

"But as a batsman you get one chance. In rugby if you make a hash of something you get a chance at redemption.

"Growing up I would bowl 10 overs and have a bat, but later on those chances to contribute reduced. In rugby you can fly in and look for work or make a tackle and I think you miss that at cricket. You could be sitting on the bank for ages watching a teammate score a double ton.

"Rugby suits my mentality," said Smith. "Psychology in rugby is a huge part of the sport and that is what I work on."

Smith has been struck by the attention to detail throughout the All Black organisation. The training-ground drills, the mental preparation, the fitness and nutrition plans - important elements were given full focus. The secret was finding the right staff and the instruction methods so the players responded.

"At test match level that is often the difference between winning and losing," he added.

"It is not the extra training. It is often the ... half-hour meeting where you talk about how you will react under pressure or what the opposition is going to do. When you sort yourself out mentally it means the difference, it gives you far more benefit than a training run."

Smith feels that mental toughness is a pillar of his game. He likes pressure and responds well, despite a small frame.

"Physically I may not have the same attributes as 90 per cent of centres running round, so I need to have a strong mental game. I see the value in it, I spend time on it but not to excess and that is a key as well."

Overthinking could be a problem and those sorts of issues were canvassed with team strategist Gilbert Enoka and other players. It helped build a base of information.

"But most of it I do by myself and all those experiences have made me a much better player than I was in 2004 when I first came into the team.

"Those experiences are the secret, assessing them and taking bits from each test. You always have to be thinking.

"If you start doubting yourself or your body is not quite right or as sharp as it was, you have to think about how far you have come and that is quite comforting."

- NZ Herald

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