Were it not for being in the right place at the right time, Ben Smith may never have played for the Highlanders, let alone racked up 84 caps for the All Blacks.
Smith played a major role in the Steve Hansen-era of the New Zealand national side, covering a range of positions. Wherever the All Blacks needed to fill a gap, Smith was the man they trusted to do the job.
In 2013, Smith filled in remarkably well in the midfield while he made the majority of his appearances on the wing. Perhaps it was at fullback where the Otago man was most at home, however, and where he arguably had the biggest impact and played his best rugby.
It wasn’t in any of those positions that Smith, who was born in Dunedin and schooled at the city’s revered King’s High School, spent his formative years, however. Instead, the former Highlanders captain played most of his early rugby in the inside halves.
And come 2007, having spent a couple of years in the local club scene, he wasn’t exactly on the path to greatness that many young men now follow – though he was a handy sevens player.
Then, Smith got the break he needed thanks to a fairly sizeable stroke of luck.
“What happened was I went and played sevens for Otago one weekend up in Queenstown,” Smith told RugbyPass from his lockdown accommodation in France. “There used to be a tournament up there – it was bloody good actually.”
“At the same sort of time, they were having Highlanders trials up there.
“Because it was an internal trial, they needed a few more numbers so I got asked to come along and sit on the bench.”
That was Smith’s first real taste of Super Rugby action but the then-21-year-old still wasn’t holding his breath for much game time.
“I got told I might get five or 10 minutes at the end,” said Smith.
Come game-day, something unfortunate and remarkable happened, depending on whose perspective you take.
“Both fullbacks went down within the first quarter. I ended up playing about 70-odd minutes – and I played at fullback.”
That was Smith’s first foray into the 15 jersey but it certainly wasn’t going to be his last.
Greg Cooper, who was coach of the Highlanders at the time, was also in charge of the New Zealand Under 21 side and he liked what he saw from the Dunedinite.
“Because I sort of managed to go ok in the preseason game, he gave me a crack in the New Zealand Under 21s and from there, things started to happen,” Smith said.
“Fullback just sort of happened from there. I got chucked there because there were a couple of injuries in that Highlanders trial game and then I was suddenly getting opportunities at a higher level.”
“Things started to happen” is perhaps a bit of an understatement.
In 2008, Smith debuted for Otago in New Zealand’s provincial competition. Six months later, he played his first match of Super Rugby. The following year, Smith was named in the All Blacks for the first time.
Not bad, for the self-described “white battler” – competing for spots in the outside backs with pacey, powerful Pacific Islanders.
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The 2009 All Blacks end of year tour to Europe was a special time for Smith, who was named on the bench against Wales but didn’t debut until a week later against Italy.
“I thought I might get a crack near the end against Wales but the way the game went, I didn’t get on,” said Smith.
“The week after, they played quite a few of us guys that hadn’t been capped before and it was an awesome experience to play for a team that you’ve grown up watching for a long time. It’ll always be a special memory.”
Smith had been a surprise selection in the All Blacks, with few fans having heard of the debutant prior to him being named in the squad.
He didn’t exactly put the world on notice during his debut like some outside backs have done, either. Smith’s first touch of the game saw him drop a box-kick from Italian halfback Tito Tebaldi.
“Yeah, not the ideal start,” Smith said. “I thought I broke my thumb, too – but it was only a sprain.”
“It was just one of those things, I suppose. Things don’t always go your way.
“Looking back, I was a young kid. I was nervous as s***. I must have been 21 or 22 and I was probably building up in my head the whole Test match.”
That was to be Smith’s only appearance for the All Blacks until 2011 when he earned a solitary cap against Fiji in the lead-up to the World Cup. It wasn’t until Hansen took over as head coach in 2012 that Smith earned a permanent spot in the team – and really started to announce himself on the world stage.
Smith accrued 10 caps in 2012, mainly off the bench, then enjoyed a rich run of games a year later, starting in all 14 of the All Blacks’ matches. He also managed 11 tries and was a nominee for the World Rugby Player of the Year award.
It was a breakout year for a man who had battled in the early stages of his career.
Despite playing primarily on the wing and, for the latter half of the year, in the midfield, fans were clamouring to see Smith at fullback – where he was utilised by the Highlanders.
They eventually got their wish, with Smith spending the better part of his remaining six years with the national side wearing 15.
Inevitably, comparisons were drawn between Smith and the man that every New Zealand fullback is eventually measured against, Christian Cullen.
Cullen was the man who set the standard in the nineties of what every fullback should aspire to.
He glided through gaps and controlled the ball on a string like the best first fives in the business but he also had blistering top end space.
The same could all be said of Smith, the man who reinforced the fact that despite the masses of power players doing the business in the outside backs now, there’s always a place for the gliding “white battler”.
And while there’s no doubt that Cullen was an exceptional talent of his own, Smith is the one who has a World Cup winner’s medal.
Who could’ve thought that it would all come about thanks to two unfortunate Highlanders fullbacks going down in a pre-season trial?
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