On the back of an exceptional 13-year career in New Zealand, 2019 was supposed to be Ben Smith’s successful swansong. While the proud Otago man still has fond memories of his final season with the Highlanders and the All Blacks, it’s fair to say that things didn’t exactly go to plan.
After all, New Zealand’s run at the World Cup was cut short at the semi-final stage by a hungry England team – and Smith himself had to settle for limited playing minutes throughout the competition.
That’s not where Smith’s bad luck started, however, with his final season playing for the Highlanders almost cut short due to injury.
“It was a dud year really – in a whole lot of ways,” Smith told RugbyPass.
It all started in early May when Smith was helped from the field in the final five minutes of the Highlanders’ thrilling 31-all draw with the Chiefs in Dunedin.
While it looked like Smith may have damaged his knee falling awkwardly in a tackle, coach Aaron Mauger confirmed that the diagnosis was slightly better – a strained hamstring.
“I never really had hamstring injuries and probably didn’t give it the amount of respect it needed and thought that I’d be back sooner than I was,” Smith admitted. “It ended up taking me quite a while.
“I suppose if you were a front-rower, you probably would have been able to get out there and do the job. But being an outside back, it just took a little bit longer than I thought. Hamstrings are just so niggly.”
At the time of Smith’s injury, the Highlanders had five games remaining in the regular season and the expectation was that the co-captain was done and dusted for the year – and likely, his Highlanders career. Smith had other ideas, however.
“I was pushing as hard as I could,” he said. “When I got my hamstring injury the goal was to get just one more game for the Highlanders.”
After being on the cusp of elimination thanks to a run of less than savoury performances, the Highlanders rallied in the final week of the competition and comprehensively outplayed the Waratahs in Invercargill 49-12 to nab the final spot in the play-offs and book a date with the Crusaders.
Thankfully, having watched his side struggle to two wins, a draw and two losses in his absence, Smith was deemed fit for the Highlanders’ quarter-final in Christchurch. The southerners were able to stay in touch with their northern rivals for the first half but, as they’re want to do, the Crusaders put the hammer down in the second stanza and ran out 38-14 victors.
“The replay got played over and over again and my head just kept dropping more and more as I looked at it.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 13, 2020
“It was gutting because especially in the first half, we were doing enough to keep the pressure on the Crusaders and then, in the second half, we weren’t able to match their intensity,” said Smith.
“But it was good to get back – although the result didn’t go our way, it was good to get back out there with the team one last time.”
Despite Smith’s injury during Super Rugby, there was still every expectation that the then-33-year-old would have a major role to play in the international season.
If you polled a who’s who of experienced top-level coaches, most would likely suggest that by the time a World Cup rolls around, you would hope to have your top team well and truly decided.
Following New Zealand’s debacle in 2007 when Graham Henry had two world class players in every position but few obvious first-choice picks, the All Blacks entered 2011 and 2015 with relatively settled teams.
The one position where that’s not been the case, however, is at fullback. The first three years of a World Cup cycle are normally spent preparing players for the final challenge at the end of the period but for whatever reason, up-and-coming fullbacks seem to really appreciate making their presence felt shortly before the global tournament arrives.
In 2011, Israel Dagg usurped Mils Muliaina to take over as the first-choice fullback, despite Muliaina’s 90-cap advantage. Four years later, Dagg was supplanted by Ben Smith – who’d been a regular fixture in the All Blacks backline but only played six of his 38 tests at fullback prior to 2015. Come 2019, Beauden Barrett was shifted from 10 to 15 and Smith found himself on the outer.
Smith’s reliability wasn’t enough for him to hold his spot on the wing over the X-factor provided by the likes of Sevu Reece, George Bridge and Jordie Barrett and the 79-cap outside back was consigned to the training field for much of the competition.
“I think, in rugby, you have good periods and bad periods. That was just a tough, old period for me,” said Smith.
“You never know what’s going to happen in rugby; you can’t look into the future. My goal was always to try and make it to the 2019 World Cup and try and contribute to the team. The way things went, I didn’t do that in a playing capacity very much.”
Still, Smith was an old head in a squad that was relatively short of experience in the backs and he still did his part off the field to put New Zealand in the best possible position to succeed.
“It wasn’t tough, it was just different,” Smith said.
“I think your mindset’s just got to change. You’re always preparing in case someone goes down, and you might get an opportunity, but you’re also making sure that you’re doing everything to help out the guys who are playing, and to make sure you’re preparing them for the week ahead.
“We did that through the weeks by trying to simulate being Ireland or England at training, trying to be the best version of them so [match-day] team knew what they were going to get in the weekend. That was also pretty important.”
While Smith wasn’t named in the 23 for New Zealand’s semi-final, he was still able to get a taste for the match, running water.
“The English, the intensity that they brought, and the way that they played in that semi-final, they deserved to win that game,” said Smith. “I was actually running the water so I was trying to get the messages from Steve and Ian out to the players as well as possible. That was the first thing I was thinking about.
“With the amount of work that’s been put in by so many people leading up to a World Cup and in a World Cup, it definitely hurt for everyone, even if you weren’t playing in that match.”
Reigning Top League champions Kobe Steelers have added a pair of All Blacks veterans to their already impressive ranks ahead of the new campaign.https://t.co/UnO1oJDPBO
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 31, 2020
Ironically, it was largely because the All Blacks were knocked out of the competition by England that Smith was actually granted the opportunity to play a final game for NZ – and nab an impressive win in the bronze playoff.
“I would have loved to have seen us make the final but probably the fact that we didn’t do that meant I managed to play against Wales,” Smith said. “That just gave me the opportunity to play one last game and I got that chance with my family and everyone there watching. It was probably a good way to sign off for me.”
“In saying that, I’d take it all back and rather not play at all and watch us win the final, sitting in the stands, yelling like anyone would be.”
That captures Smith’s commitment to New Zealand’s cause. He’s a team man who wants the best for everyone around him – even if he doesn’t necessarily get to share in the spoils.
Following the loss to England, there were calls that Smith’s experience was tailor-made for the semi clash and the Highlander should have been on the field right from the get-go – or at the very least, on the bench.
The one-time All Blacks captain had an excellent game in New Zealand’s final match of the tournament, booking two tries in the comprehensive 40-17 win over Wales. He was also safe as houses under the high ball – an attribute that would have been well-employed against England.
While the World Cup didn’t go as hoped, by any stretch of the imagination, the trip to Japan was still the experience of a lifetime and a memorable way for Smith to sign off his international rugby career.
“I’ve still got a lot of good memories from the 2019 World Cup,” The now Japan-bound former All Black said. “Although everything didn’t go to plan, we still enjoyed the ride and enjoyed our time over there – I would never change anything.
“That’s just rugby for you.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now