Challengers have the Hurricanes maestro in their sights for World Cup.

Among the many fine centres who have worn the All Black jersey, Conrad Smith sits in the top tier.

His exploits and longevity in the national game allow him to be measured against those who have excelled since World War II, players such as Bruce Robertson, Frank Bunce, Tana Umaga, Joe Stanley, Bill Davis, Paul Little and Johnny Smith.

All brought selfless attributes as special virtues in that role where organisation is a necessity, patience is expected, skills and decision-making are imperative.

Patterns in rugby have changed significantly from Johnny Smith's days through to Conrad Smith, but the demands at centre have not varied vastly.

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It is becoming the domain of bigger men, though, where large frames can bend the line or push their hands through contact for offloads. Defensive reads and execution are repeat demands.

Smith's rugby intelligence has taken him to most rugby grounds in the globe where, alongside a strong association with Ma'a Nonu, he has provided the dependable ticket in midfield.

"I've always found it's a position where you have to really adjust to the second five-eighths you are playing with and the rest of the backline really, the wings, the fullback," Smith said.

"It's only when you are more experienced that you can do that. You sort of have to understand what the second five-eighths does."

The All Blacks won the tight test at Ellis Park 27-20, hear the captains and coaches post match as they review what happened and look ahead to the RWC.

Passes out in front of teammates, straight running lines, a grubber poked in behind the line, strong chases or support play - Smith ticks those elements which fill out a top centre's CV.

It's about being in the right place and offering chances on attack and filling in the defensive lines. It's about being a voice.

Smith is quitting the top stuff after his third World Cup, where skilled men who operate under intense strain will be essential in the playoffs.

To these eyes, he has lost a nip of speed but compensates with his anticipation and "reads" on defence.

Not all the time, though, and Jesse Kriel's angle running and bust between Smith and Nonu in the Ellis Park test was another of those times when someone got it wrong.

Kriel squeezed through a small gap while Smith and Nonu flailed.

A few years ago at Twickenham, England midfield back Brad Barritt gave Smith a torrid time on defence. There have been others. It happens.

There are challengers but do any suggest more All Black surety than Smith?

Malakai Fekitoa may have more attacking edge and his passing game has improved but he does shoot up out of the line, which leaves holes if he does not nail his victim.

Ryan Crotty is another whose low number of errors and high workrate may best mirror the strengths Smith brings to the All Blacks.

Playing Nonu or Sonny Bill Williams would shift them from their best position at second five-eighth, while Charles Piutau would cope but he has not had enough work in that role.

Fast forward to the World Cup quarter-finals. It's a crunch match, a knockout game with all the pressure of sudden-death finality. Who presents the frame and brain for those demands and will respond to that test?

Right now it's still the reliable Smith but the gap is closing from within the All Blacks and the other World Cup aspirants.