“The replay got played over and over again and my head just kept dropping more and more as I looked at it.”
It probably wasn’t the start that former All Black Ben Smith had been hoping for in his first match for his adopted French side.
Having played almost 300 first-class matches back in New Zealand, it’s fair to say that the Dunedin-born fullback was hardly wet behind the ears – but all those games in front of the relatively tame Kiwi crowds hadn’t prepared him for the French cauldron that he’d now found himself him.
“Before I came over to France, I used to hear that there was a big thing about playing home and away and I didn’t really get it,” Smith told RugbyPass from the southwest of France.
“I sort of thought ‘well, you should be able to play the same at home or away.’”
In Smith’s first game for Pau, played away from home at Stade Francais’ Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris, the 84-cap All Black was quickly learning that his initial expectations couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I didn’t understand until I got over here,” Smith said. “It’s totally different.”
Smith started the match with 14 on his back – the same number he donned for his international debut 10 years earlier. It was just days before Christmas and Pau were chasing their sixth win of the Top 14 season.
The game started well enough for the visitors, with former Chiefs prop Siegfried Fisi’ihoi scoring a try and Antoine Hastoy adding 6 points from the boot to build up an 11-point lead.
Stade Francais quickly fought back, however, and with the scores poised at 12-11 shortly after half-time, the unthinkable happened.
“My first game of Top 14, I think it was about 60 minutes in, I got a red card,” said Smith. “The replay got played over and over again and my head just kept dropping more and more as I looked at it.
“I kept thinking ‘hopefully it’s only a penalty or a yellow’ – and then the next thing, I turned around and it’s a red.”
The outside back was certainly never considered an ill-disciplined or careless player in New Zealand. In 84 tests for the All Blacks, he had received just one yellow card – for a high tackle in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.
That sending-off in Smith’s Top 14 debut was a punishment for the winger using his elbow to fend off Stade Francais hooker Lucas Da Silva. It was hardly the most reckless of fends – the kind of act that would often not even be looked at twice.
At Stade Jean-Bouin, however, it was looked at over and over and over again.
“You get over here and you sort of get an understanding of the passion that home supporters have,” Smith said.
“If you’re at home, all of a sudden, everything goes up on the big screen. It might be foul play or something and it goes straight up on the screen and everyone stops watching the game. The crowd looks up at the big screen and they start to get into it.
“I think all these kind of things make it hard as an away team, if you’re traveling, because sometimes the rub of the green goes against you.
“I got three weeks for that, which was interesting. But I suppose it’s all part of the learning over here, and you’ve just got to roll with it.”
Suffice to say, Smith had quickly learned how big an impact a home crowd can really have on a result.
That loss was one of many that Pau suffered in matches where they had started out well in control of proceedings.
“In the Top 14 – obviously I didn’t help when I got the red card – we just lost against Stade Francais and we had a couple of games where we were leading with a couple of minutes to go but we didn’t manage to close them out,” Smith said.
“I think this competition over here is just so tight, the top team could lose to the bottom team and there’s just nothing in these games.”
And although Pau were sitting well-adrift the top of the table when the Top 14 was called to a stand-still in early March, momentum was turning in the side’s favour.
“We played a couple of European Challenge Cup games and we managed to win a few of those, against Leicester and Cardiff,” Smith said. “We were tracking along pretty well when we beat those two teams.
“It’s unfortunate because we had a couple of big games coming up against some good teams that we wanted to have a crack at. If we managed wins then we’d be back around mid-ish table.”
For Smith personally, there have certainly been adjustments he’s had to make due to the differing conditions that the Top 14 is played under compared to Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Super Rugby kicks off at the end of summer so the weather’s a bit better,” said Smith.
“Even when it does get through to the winter months, down at the Highlanders we had the roof. Then you play in South Africa and in Australia, where it would be nice weather so, the games are always really, really fast.
“Whereas over here, in December and January, although we have had a couple of nice nights to play rugby, it’s probably just a wee bit more defence-orientated. The rucks get slowed down a wee bit more and that speed of ball sometimes just isn’t as quick. You can get frustrated with it.
“But there are just different ways to get involved in the game. There’s still a lot of kicking; if it’s a wet night, you still get kicked a lot of ball at the back. You do still feel like you’re into it and busy enough.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 12, 2020
When all’s said and done, the rugby and lifestyle in France has been hugely refreshing for Smith, who made his professional rugby debut way back in 2007.
“I’m loving it here,” he said.
“It’s been a great opportunity to come over here and it’s made me realise that in the rugby community, in general, there are so many good people involved in the game.
“Over here, even though our French is limited, there are so many good French people that are just the same as Kiwis back home. They love the game and work really hard. It’s been great to link up with a lot of those people over here and learn a bit about how they do things. To know them as people and what makes them tick has been pretty cool.
“I’ve actually really enjoyed the transition.”
With the French lockdown ending earlier this week, Smith will simply be hoping to get out of the house and spend more time with the people and the team that have welcomed them into his their set-up.
The Top 14 won’t be back on until the 2020-2021 season kicks of further down the track but the time off will give Smith and his teammates a chance to reset after a slow start to the current year.
Providing that the former All Blacks doesn’t double his red card tally, there should be plenty of good things to come.
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