Rugby: Bristol club boasts All Black link

By Kris Shannon

Ben Smith doesn't expect his former Old Colstonian mates will cheer for him while he wears the silver fern

Much will be expected of Smith over the next 18 months. Photo / NZ Herald
Much will be expected of Smith over the next 18 months. Photo / NZ Herald

Old Colstonians RFC is an amateur rugby club based in Bristol, in the southwest of England, a club without a Wikipedia page and the owners of a Twitter account boasting a modest 207 followers.

But it's also a club that earned a couple of mentions at an All Blacks media session this week.

The source of the name drop can be found among the "Famous OCs" section on the Old Colstonians' website, where a three-strong group includes the man starting on the right wing for the home side at Eden Park tonight.

Ben Smith played for the Old Colstonians First XV in the Gloucester 1 division during the 2005/06 season, when the then-teenager, straight out of high school, was enjoying a gap year in the English city.

The 28-year-old has fond memories of his time at the club and it's easy to imagine the feeling is mutual. After all, Smith, along with London Wasps wing Tom Varndell, is one of only two OC old boys to be capped for their country.

If Smith manages to visit his former stomping ground when the All Blacks spend what they hope is a lengthy spell in England during next year's World Cup, he will find a few old friends. But he's unlikely to find too many willing to cheer on their erstwhile teammate if he's wearing the silver fern while facing off with the English rose.

"I enjoyed my time over there and I still catch up with a few guys who are in Bristol," Smith says. "They keep in touch and obviously they're pretty proud English supporters, most of the guys in that team.

"The 2005 Lions series was on when I was over there so they gave me a bit of banter about that, a bit of stick, but I managed to give it right back after we won that series."

Smith, for winning that bout of verbal sparring, has some of his current teammates to thank. The All Blacks' 3-0 triumph is chiefly remembered for the rapid ascension in the world game of Dan Carter — and for a certain spear tackle on Brian O'Driscoll — but Ma'a Nonu, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock are also survivors from that series.

It's always good in the back three and
I think it's a position for my skillset.

Ben Smith

While that is a mark of the quintet's longevity, it also illustrates just how far Smith has come, from a young Kiwi on his OE to an integral member of the All Blacks, in both their current joust with England and next year's World Cup defence.

Barring a dramatic fall in fortune, Smith's name will be among the first on the team sheet during the 2015 tournament, be it at fullback or on the wing. His decision-making in attack is almost flawless and, when he does opt to run, he holds an uncanny ability to sniff out the slightest of gaps in the opposition defence, as evidenced by his remarkable run of 10 tries in eight tests while on the wing during last year's perfect season.

Seemingly a player who flourishes in open spaces, Smith now may not be needed to succeed namesake Conrad at centre, following the emergence of Malakai Fekitoa. And having admitted his discomfort in the position after a dalliance in the No 13 jersey during last year's Northern tour, the Highlanders man was eagerly awaiting another run out wide tonight, although he refused to accept all the plaudits for his dazzling play in 2013.

"It doesn't really worry me, to be honest," he says of his preferred position. "But it's always good in the back three and I think it's a position for my skillset.

"Last year a lot of hard work was done on the inside to set up some tries. That always helps and probably makes you look a bit better than you are at times."

No matter how readily he downplays his role, much will be expected of Smith over the next 18 months. A relatively later bloomer who made his test debut in 2009, Smith is in the middle of his prime and it wouldn't surprise to see him swiftly pick up where he left off last year.

Whether his team do likewise will become clearer at Eden Park this evening, and despite an under-strength England being relatively overlooked by the bookies, the media and the public, those within the All Blacks environment, understandably, have an alternative view.

"The boys have massive respect for England," Smith says. "They're building nicely — we watched them play in the Six Nations and they performed pretty well, so they're going to come over here with a bit of confidence.

"There's a lot of depth in English rugby, I feel, and if anything [the absent players] will give them a lot of motivation. I'd say if there were similar circumstances with the All Blacks we'd be backing ourselves that those guys could do a job, and I'm sure England will be the same."

That depth could portend a serious tilt at the All Blacks' world championship title come next October, especially considering England will enjoy a groundswell of home support.

"They're a team that's building nicely towards that World Cup and it's important for any team to get a bit of continuity going through," Smith said. "I think they're going to be a big threat in England with the support they get over there."

That support will certainly include the players and coaches and fans of Old Colstonians RFC, although they may just find a soft spot for a former son who has swapped the navy and gold of their club for the black of New Zealand.

Except for when he's playing the Poms.

- NZ Herald

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