New Zealand Rugby: Can Ben Smith Force His Way into the All Blacks?
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At the start of the season he would have been well down the pecking order. But 10 weeks into the 2011 rugby season, Ben Smith is now amongst the contenders for an All Black spot.
For so long he has struggled to shine in a Highlanders team that has been well below average and the world has only seen glimpses of his talent.
But finally the Highlanders have gotten their act together and Smith has flourished. While it has been hard to single out individuals in their turnaround, Smith has stood out and has provided a spark that they have lacked in recent years.
Many have said that Smith lacks a yard in speed, this may be true, but he surely makes up for this with his ability to break the first tackle and make runs from the back. He has a good kicking game and also knows when to use it, something many of the other players lack these days.
What really makes him stand out, though, is his uncanny ability to spot gaps in the defences. It's no coincidence that he cuts quality defences to bits every week with his dazzling runs up the middle. His ability to read a game from fullback is something special and few players are blessed with such a talent.
Combine all of this and you get a dangerous skillful player who is reliable at the back. And that is the key word, reliable. Whenever he gets the ball at the back the Highlanders can be confident he will take the right option and they will be put into a good position.
Now the question begs, does this warrant an All Blacks call-up?
My first instinct is to say no. It's late to be making changes to the squad, particularly after such a dominant season last year.
However, an exception may be made.
It seems likely the position Smith will be looked at for is the utility back cover that Isaia Toeava has provided in recent years, but could also force his way into the fullback-wing position occupied by Cory Jane.
At first this seems absurd. Cory Jane was arguably the world's top winger last year, while Toeava is having the best season of his career.
But take a closer look and it may not be so clear cut.
Jane has been well below his best this year. It could be said that he's struggled behind a weak forward pack and has had rubbish to work with, but at the same time, this was what Smith dealt with for years.
The two players bring similar qualities to the game. Both are skillful, intelligent players who also have a combination of strength, speed and agility that make them threats on attack.
What Jane has that Smith doesn't is experience at test match level and should see him win the spot. Whoever they choose, they will have a quality player which shows the strength of New Zealand rugby at the moment.
The other spot Smith is vying for is that currently occupied by Isaia Toeava.
This, again, is a close call. Both players are in the best form of their careers and have been two of the top players in Super Rugby this year.
Both can play in the back three, as well as in the centres and even at first five if needed. This makes them the two obvious candidates for the utility back spot.
Smith offers more security and is a more well-rounded player, whereas Toeava offers more on attack and can be lethal running as he has shown time and time again this year.
But like Jane, Toeava has plenty of test match experience, something that is irreplaceable.
There will be many people who would take Smith and justifiably so. But it seems unlikely that the All Black selectors will pass up Toeava. They proclaimed him as the next big thing in 2005 and have been picking him ever since. Now that he is finally starting to show the promise that we have all heard about, it seems unlikely they will choose Smith over him.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean Ben Smith will have to wait to reclaim an All Black spot. There are other positions in the team, but that of Toeava and Jane are the two which he would be most comfortable filling. However, if he can continue to play the way he's playing it will be hard to ignore him.
And from there who knows? Maybe come September the name Ben Smith will be read alongside that of Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw in the All Blacks World Cup squad.
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