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The Northern Migration: Conrad Smith

By James McOnie
Conrad Smith

Forget winning a World Cup or getting a law degree, Conrad Smith says learning French is the most difficult thing he’s ever done.

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James McOnie spoke to Smith on a 2-degree day in the city of Pau (pop. 80,000), in the south of France.

Why did you choose to go to Pau?

A few reasons. I knew [head coach] Simon Mannix who’s the coach here and that was a big thing. The wife and I wanted to move to Europe regardless and we didn’t want to go to a big city. It’s worked out well so we stayed.

You’re near the Pyrenees. Do you enjoy the mountains?

It reminds us a lot of home, in Taranaki. It’s an hour from the mountain, it’s an hour from the beaches. Everybody skis. I’m not into skiing, it’s a bit risky in my line of work, but my wife skis. I’ve never attempted to ski but I’ll start when I finish playing.

How’s the family enjoying French life?

We’re loving it. We’ve got a French daughter, Amelie she’s 10 months now. It’s a cool place to live with a family, especially in this part of France. There’s a lot of childcare services. School starts when they’re three – and lunch is provided. Most people here love having young families.

I love the movie Amelie. Was your daughter named after that?

A little bit yeah. We wanted a French name and that one popped up. We’d watched the movie and I also knew the name from Amelie Mauresmo, the tennis player. And we wanted to make sure our New Zealand family and friends could pronounce it.

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You spoke French to me when I called. You seem reasonably fluent.

I try. I’ve had a lot of lessons. It’s easily the most difficult thing I’ve had to do. I enjoyed the challenge and I always wanted to learn a language.

Even now I’m probably at the stage where I’m moderately confident – I’ll still get lost in some conversations but at least I can ask for what I want.

Our son Luca started school in September and now he’s pretty much fluent… which is slightly annoying. I try to speak French to him and he doesn’t want a bar of it.

He corrects me when I try to join in on the nursery rhymes and songs. Whether it’s Mum or Dad, we’re told we’re not singing it right.

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Did you not learn a language at Francis Douglas College in New Plymouth?

From memory I don’t think there was one on offer. I know now it’s compulsory for schools to offer a language. But I think the French teacher had just left so we couldn’t.

What were you like growing up?

I was an outdoorsy kid, and I enjoyed school, I was a pretty good student. Between sport and homework I was pretty busy. I played pretty much every sport I could – basketball, tennis, cricket, rugby and touch. It kept my parents busy.

When I got home the sport didn’t stop. I’ve got two older brothers, and we’d playing cricket in the large double garage downstairs, the classic basement. The lawn was too steep to play sport on, so we’d bowl from the driveway into the garage where you’d bat. It was quality. You had to get the height right otherwise you’d hit the top of the garage doorway, you couldn’t get any flight – you had to bowl fast.

Your brother Nathan is a top sportsman, a Paralympic cyclist – tell me about his story.

He had an accident when he was living in London. It was the same year I debuted for the All Blacks in Rome (2004). I hadn’t seen him after the accident until after my debut.

Anyway he’s a much better cyclist with one leg than I am with two. He ended up going to the Paralympics in London and the world champs. It’s really impressive.

Nathan is a pharmacist in Taranaki. He’s just bought a pharmacy in Stratford.

Were you good at rugby at school?

Yeah I was handy, but I had white boy syndrome – I didn’t grow. I played halfback for the first XV and then I shot up after my first year of university.

I played colts at Old Boys University [in Wellington] in my first year and that’s when I first played in the midfield. And then the following year they picked me in the premier side and that’s sort of where it all started. We had four Super Rugby players in the backline – Paul Steinmetz, Jason Spice, Shannon Paku and Tanner Vili – they all made me look good. It was a great education for me. I made New Zealand Universities, that was my first representative team, and I made Wellington Colts later that year.

You’re old enough to remember playing regular senior club rugby. Are you concerned young stars coming through don’t experience that?

It’s just a reality. It was good for me back then but there are different pathways now.

I loved my club, I played 50 games for OBU. We used to still celebrate our clubs with the All Blacks. We’d all have to wear our club jerseys on one day you’d have to get up and talk about your jersey. Those traditions aren’t being lost.

It was Wayne Smith’s idea and it was carried on by us older guys in the team.

You played 94 tests over 11 years. What was the key to staying in the All Blacks?

Just always challenging yourself – never being happy with the way you’re playing, and finding things to do differently. I never felt comfortable in my position. I looked at the talent around New Zealand and I thought I was in trouble if I didn’t try to evolve and add to my game.

Have you noticed that everyone seems to be able to throw amazingly difficult passes now, but people still have trouble with easy passes?

It’s a nice point. The offload is a massive part of the game but I agree there’s a still a place for simple passes and the ability to do that under pressure. That’s not practiced enough in my opinion. That’s the hard part – doing something well under pressure.

What are the differences between French club rugby and Super Rugby?

The length of the season – we’re together as a team literally for 11 months. Everyone says the game is slower and that’s true to a point, but there are other factors. The winter is harsh – some games called off because of snow – but mainly it’s impossible to maintain a high intensity for that length of time. Super Rugby was a sprint – you drop one or two games and it’s almost over.

There are eight Kiwis at Pau. How is that possible? And do you have any French players?

It seems incredible but we’ve only got one South African and one Aussie so there are plenty of French players. Most French clubs would have a similar make-up of foreigners and Frenchmen. It will be harder for foreigners to play here soon. Currently 14 players per 23 on your team sheet have to be French. But it’s going up to 16.

With so many Kiwis in the backline, do you call the moves in French or English?

We’ve still got French names for moves. The rugby language is pretty similar.

Sometimes there’ll be Tom [Taylor], Colin [Slade] and myself on the field and we might just speak English in the heat of the moment but we try and speak French.

You’ve said this is your last season. Then what?

We’re really keen to stay in France so we’re looking opportunities, with the club and elsewhere. I did do a law degree once and I did say I’d like to use that one day.

You once told me you’d like to run sport in New Zealand. Is that still an ambition?

Potentially. I’m happy here just getting experience. I’m not a big planner. I don’t know where I’m going to be in 5 or 10 years’ time. We’re happy here in France. I’m looking at sport and law and seeing where it takes me.

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William 1 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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