Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

All Black Ben Smith sticks with Highlanders

It's Speights over Champagne for Ben Smith. Photo / Facebook.
It's Speights over Champagne for Ben Smith. Photo / Facebook.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has no doubt about the importance of fullback Ben Smith's decision to re-sign with New Zealand Rugby.

The 30-year-old Smith, who had flirted with French club Pau, home to former teammates Colin Slade and Conrad Smith, before deciding to stay with the Highlanders and All Blacks until 2020, is, Hansen said, the "most consistent player in world rugby".

"It's a real confidence booster for us to keep a player of this calibre in our country and we now look forward with excitement knowing that our vice-captain is going to be with us through to 2020," Hansen added.

"Obviously, it's taken a wee while to reach an agreement but good things take time."

In the end it wasn't much of a surprise thanks to story in a French newspaper last week which suggested Pau coach Simon Mannix, another former All Black, had accepted the fact Smith wouldn't be joining his club because of the lure of the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

That may have been one reason to stay; others were the lifestyle New Zealand has to offer his young family, and the deal that Smith and his agent Warren Alcock have negotiated with New Zealand Rugby.

With Smith in a senior leadership role alongside skipper Kieran Read, the money side of the equation is likely to be extremely good by New Zealand standards.

The details remain confidential but Smith's salary among the All Blacks will be second in value only to Read's. Smith has also negotiated a sabbatical clause, or what NZ Rugby described as "an option of an extended non-playing break from the game in order to manage his workload", plus the option to terminate his contract following the 2019 World Cup.

But whatever the money, NZ Rugby have done a good bit of business. After an uncertain start to his test career in 2009, Smith has blossomed into one of the best to have worn the black No15 jersey. He has scored 27 tries in 60 tests, and it's his consistent excellence, so admired by Hansen, which has him starting in every significant test.

Smith has spoken of his difficulties in adapting to international rugby, and that self-doubt hampered his ability to get the best out of himself. Thankfully for him and the All Blacks, that hasn't been an issue for many years.

A relatively quiet individual in public, Smith has a sly sense of humour and is happy to follow the road less travelled. He announced his intention to stay on a blue and gold picnic blanket on the green carpet of the Highlanders' indoor stadium today by selecting a bottle of Speight's rather than Champagne, a move which might have prompted the southern team's supporters to reach for their own bottles of the sponsor's product in celebration.

"It's been an interesting few months as we have worked through what was best for my family and career over the next few years. In the end we are happy with our decision to stay in New Zealand," Smith said.

"Obviously, the All Blacks, the Highlanders and Otago are three teams that I really enjoy playing for, and I'm pretty excited about a few of the opportunities and challenges we'll have over the next few seasons."

- NZ Herald

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