Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: How Ben Smith emerged from the All Blacks' shadow

New Zealand All Blacks fullback Ben Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand All Blacks fullback Ben Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Steve Hansen can't remember whether it was him, Wayne Smith or Graham Henry who first spotted Ben Smith in 2009.

What he does remember is that once Smith was on the All Blacks' selection group's radar, they were unanimous he was a player of significant interest with unlimited potential.

It had been a difficult year for the All Blacks and they were, by late October, in transition mode in regard to their selection template for wings. They needed men who could deal with the high ball and both Smith and the uncapped Zac Guildford had shown themselves to be strong aerial players, which is why they were taken on the end of year tour.

Guildford, having starred for the New Zealand Under-20 team in both 2008 and earlier that same year, was an emerging talent whose elevation to the All Blacks came as no surprise.

But Smith was a player who few knew anything about. He'd missed out on national age-grade sides and while he'd played for the Highlanders, he'd managed to stay largely anonymous.

He'd won his call-up to the national side on the strength of his work for Otago - and given the lower profile of that tournament, his inclusion was seen as one of the bigger surprises within the tour party.

What Hansen also remembers is that it wasn't just the public who were having trouble getting their heads around Smith's inclusion. The man himself was battling with it and Hansen's strongest memory is of how Smith was so lacking in confidence on that tour.

For the tests against Wales and England it came down to a straight choice between Guildford and Smith for one of the wing berths and the former was picked both times.

"It was touch and go between the two," says Hansen, "and Zac just had that little bit more confidence and self-belief than Bender [Smith] and as a result he [Smith] missed out. It turned out to be a false dawn for Zac really because he just didn't deal with the issues he had and I guess we didn't know the full extent of what he was dealing with."

To the rugby following public, it felt like Smith, who won a solitary cap against Italy, had been a selection mistake. Or at least he was unlikely to be seen again as Guildford was the man of the hour, the player who had taken his chance and shown himself ready with impressively mature and confident performances.

Hansen's view was different. He was undeterred - his conviction remained that Smith, even though he hadn't made the All Blacks in 2010 or 2011, had the potential to be a world class player.

It was in 2012 - Hansen's first year as head coach - that the picture shifted. Smith enjoyed a strong and consistent campaign with the Highlanders while Guildford was failing to keep his demons at bay and his form suffered as a result.

Hansen could see that the two men were at respective crossroads: Guildford was in danger of tumbling into the abyss due to his alcoholism while Smith, if he could just believe in himself more, could establish himself as a regular test player.

"He really didn't believe in himself," says Hansen about Smith in 2012. "He was thinking about leaving, playing offshore, and so I remember having a conversation with him in Dunedin, telling him how good he could be if he stayed. I told him if he left, he'd never know how good he could have been.

"Both myself and Foz [assistant coach Ian Foster] talked to him a lot about what he could achieve and I can remember also having conversations with the New Zealand Rugby Union about Ben - telling them the same thing.

"I felt that he could be a world class player, really special and be part of World Cups, play against the Lions and even go to the Olympics."

It all finally clicked for Smith in 2013. Cory Jane was injured early in the year and Smith came into the test team and ended up being shortlisted as a World Rugby player of the year. And he's only improved since then.

He's the man who surprises every time he plays - be it for the Highlanders or All Blacks. His skill-set is immense. His accuracy unrelenting; his vision is eagle-like and he has become a composed and inspiring captain.

Probably even Australians would agree that Smith, on account of his greater range of skills - is the world's best fullback ahead of Israel Folau and likely to be the most influential player at Ellis Park in the Super Rugby semifinal.

Just as Smith once lacked belief in himself, now the Highlanders lack belief on the few occasions they have had to play without their captain. He has become their everything and the man who these days makes the impossible seem routine.

He's rarely beaten in the air or caught out of position. He beats the first defender as a matter of course and usually the second and he's become more willing to pop up at first receiver and make decisions.

He tackles well, can kick long and cleverly and his general reading of the game and ability to turn nothing into something is unrivalled.

"He's recognised by everyone know as a world class player," says Hansen of Smith. "He's definitely a great story for perseverance. He didn't play any age-grade rugby and you can see why they call him the Green Island battler. As he's got more comfortable he has just got better and better."

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