Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: Loyalty pays off for captain Conrad Smith

Chris Lowrey fails to stop Conrad Smith as he scores the winning try for the Hurricanes against the Blues. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Chris Lowrey fails to stop Conrad Smith as he scores the winning try for the Hurricanes against the Blues. Photo / Greg Bowker.

Even as the Hurricanes were going through their darkest days as a franchise last year, Conrad Smith never thought about leaving.

As coach Mark Hammett worked through his clear-out and told Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore they weren't part of his plans and a host of current and former All Blacks looked elsewhere, Smith stayed put.

His loyalty was rewarded when he was named captain for this year and the Hawera-born centre has responded by playing the best rugby of his career.

"Nah, not at all, never for a second," Smith said when asked if he had pondered jumping ship. "I've never changed any club at any stage and I love loyalty; that's part of the reason I play footy.

"People are motivated by different things but, for me, playing with teams and building up camaraderie is all part of what drives me. That's why, when I saw [last year's clear-out] happening, I only thought, 'How can I make it better?' and, 'How can I turn things around here?'

"And that was what drove me towards the end of last year to straight away talk to even the CEO and the coaches as to how to turn the team around."

Smith has certainly helped to inspire a turnaround and the All Blacks could do worse than him as captain if circumstances called for a new leader. The 30-year-old has played all but 30 minutes of the Hurricanes' campaign this year, starting in all 15 games, despite barely having a pre-season after enjoying a well-earned break following last year's World Cup triumph.

The superlatives have flowed since, as his more high-profile All Black midfield partners have experienced form fluctuations and more contract discussions than people care to remember.

As to what has been behind Smith's rise to being arguably the world's best No13 this year, the reason seems simple: fun.

"I've enjoyed it," the Francis Douglas Memorial College old boy said. "It's gone a lot better than I thought it could. It was a big challenge and maybe that's prepared me well and prepared the whole team. We sort of prepared for the worst and hoped for the best and you use that to get you through. What people were saying about us, they would've thought we'd only have one or two wins by this stage and I think that's made us enjoy it."

The Hurricanes have won nine from 15 this year ahead of tonight's final regular-season clash with the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium and they remain an outside chance to claim a spot in the playoffs if they can register a bonus-point win and other results fall their way.

Making the top six seemed fanciful when Hammett named a 2012 squad last year that included plenty of players high on potential but light on experience at Super 15 level.

Hammett can now sit back in the knowledge his side have exceeded expectations and the leadership of Smith has been a key factor in their performance.

"Probably the big thing with Conrad was right at the beginning of the year when we sat down and formed a pretty tight relationship around where we wanted to go, how we wanted to be seen and certainly how we wanted to win respect at the start of a very difficult season," Hammett said.

"So he's been absolutely instrumental and it wasn't a case of me saying this is what we need. It was collaborated between a few of us and then we built a plan around that. He's been massive and absolutely instrumental in that. He's a leader and he leads by example."

You need look no further than the emotion Smith displayed when he scored a match-winning try for the Hurricanes against the Blues at Eden Park in week five to see how much the team means to him. The qualified lawyer got up thumping his chest on the Hurricanes logo.

As the captain of a young side, this season has given Smith renewed vigour.

"I suppose once I saw the group and having talked to the coaches and with what we went through last year it felt pretty natural because it hurt me what we'd gone through," he said. "I wanted to make the most of it. I wasn't going to step back and let things get any worse ..."

Conrad Smith

Age: 30

Height: 1.86m

Weight: 95kg

Teams: Wellington, Hurricanes, All Blacks

Tests: 58 (54 starts and 22 tries)

Made his provincial debut: For Wellington in 2003

Turned out for the Hurricanes: In only one game off the bench in 2004

Made his test debut: Later that year against Italy

Did you know?
While he has made a few appearances in different positions from the bench in his career, Smith has never started a first-class rugby game in any position other than centre.

- APNZ

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