'Skinny white guy' who became a midfield master signs off for the Hurricanes tonight, writes Daniel Richardson.
John Plumtree can remember the first time he saw Conrad Smith play.
It was 2003, Plumtree was the Wellington provincial coach and after watching a club game featuring Old Boys University, Plumtree picked up the phone and called his assistant, Chris Boyd.
"I said: 'Who's that skinny white guy in the midfield for OBU?'," Plumtree recalled. "He goes, 'Oh, I think that might be Conrad Smith' and I said, 'Man, that guy can play, I think we should invite him into our Wellington squad'. And the rest is history, really."
That was the thing you noticed about Smith those days; he was the slightest centre running around in professional rugby. Despite the thin build, Plumtree knew he'd spotted a talented player.
"When I started coaching him, I could see he was on his way."
It's funny how things work out though. Plumtree is now the assistant coach at the Hurricanes with Boyd in charge, while Smith is set to play his final game for the franchise when they host the Highlanders in the Super Rugby final in Wellington tonight, along with his midfield mate Ma'a Nonu.
Despite both Plumtree and Smith being from Taranaki, they'd never crossed paths before 2003 as Plumtree spent time playing and coaching abroad while Smith completed his schooling.
Before he developed into one of the best midfielders to have laced up a boot in the modern era, Smith was a halfback at Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth.
Plumtree and Smith still share a joke about when the coach dropped a young Smith from his provincial side for being late to a recovery session, while the player has long maintained he couldn't find the pool where the team was meant to assemble.
Given Plumtree also gave him his start in the professional ranks, he joked that he never gets the credit he deserves for discovering him. "I give him a hard time because he never thanks me very much for making him," Plumtree said with a grin.
But while Plumtree gave Smith his first opportunity, it's Smith's evolution as a player that has been fascinating.
He's not the quickest, biggest - he's bulked up to 95kg - or most fashionable player but his anticipation and decision-making are nearly unrivalled at centre. "The guy has improved physically a lot and not too much gets past his channel," Plumtree said. "Defensively, he's just well-organised."
Smith has played 125 games for the Hurricanes - tonight's will be the biggest of his tenure given he missed the 2006 Super Rugby final defeat against the Crusaders with a broken leg - and he has also made 85 test appearances for the All Blacks.
Smith has won 90 per cent of the tests he has lined up in and in the era of substitutes, he has started 81 of those 85 matches.
But while the 33-year-old continues to marvel on the paddock, his off-field leadership has been crucial for the Hurricanes in the past few seasons. They've been turbulent times and the Mark Hammett coaching era from 2011 to 2014 yielded poor results but ushered in a cultural overhaul in the capital.
Many of Smith's teammates departed - some voluntarily, others were pushed - but the captain stayed loyal to the only Super Rugby side he has known.
"This journey with the Canes has been pretty special and I suppose, almost regardless of the result on Saturday night and regardless of probably the way we've gone this year, I still would have left a very proud Hurricane of 12 years," Smith said.
"The times I've had, and the fact it's ended up like this is obviously going to leave it a little bit nicer. The memories will be tinged with a lot more of a smile on the face but I've loved every minute of it and I've loved even the tough times and the tough seasons where we've finished mid-table."
After this year's World Cup he will link with French club Pau and his wife and child will join him on something of a delayed OE.
The veteran has said he won't play every game during the next couple of seasons in France as he looks to try his hand at coaching, and Plumtree said the regard in which the young Hurricanes held him was evident.
"They're not starstruck but you can see that they're impressed with those individuals and talking with the younger players in their one-on-ones, when we do the reviews, they model themselves on the older players and they watch them in their environment, and that's the big thing; when I hear that, it's music to my ears because they're learning."
Smith heads a group of experienced Hurricanes who move abroad after this season, including prop Ben Franks, long-time midfield partner Ma'a Nonu, lock Jeremy Thrush, halfback Chris Smylie and midfielder Rey Lee-Lo.
There will be notable holes to fill in the side next season but Smith said he was confident the Hurricanes were built to thrive in the expanded Super Rugby competition.
"It'll be a lot of hard work. It's a great competition now, there's some great teams, particularly in New Zealand, and they'll have to start from scratch again and there will be a bit of experience gone this year but I absolutely think we'll be in a really good spot."
While there's plenty of players who have returned from offshore stints to go around in Super Rugby again, you get the impression Smith will hang the boots up at the right time - he's sharp like that.
"I'd never rule it out but I'm leaving with the idea that I've done enough yards in this body and in the legs. I still feel fine but there's other things I want to do ... and I'm going to leave pretty happy."
So, catch him while you can, folks, as one of the most iconic Hurricanes pulls on the yellow jersey one last time tonight. Don't miss it.