Au revoir to our Ben

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
He has the most ordinary of names but that has never been prohibitive in earning the status of Otago rugby great. Think Laurie, Kevin, David, Josh, Jeff — and now Ben.

From unheralded beginnings as a wiry utility back to a blossoming as the best fullback in the rugby world, Ben Smith’s journey was a classic tale of the southern boy made good.

Confirmation of his departure to France after the 2019 season was not unexpected but still a sad moment for those who have treasured his immense contribution to Otago, Highlanders and All Blacks rugby.

What has made him such a beloved figure in the South? There are a variety of factors, which combined put him in the discussion for the greatest player in the history of Otago rugby.

He was one of us. A kid from King’s High School. A member of the blue-collar Green Island club. An ordinary bloke — the "Ben From Accounts" nickname coined by the Alternative Commentary Collective was entirely apt.

Elite sportspeople have a tendency to live in a bubble, as the demands of their profession and the impossibility of staying anonymous make a regular lifestyle problematic, but you never got the sense Smith, even when he became a star All Black, had his head turned by the trappings of wealth and fame.

Humble to the core, he always looked slightly embarrassed to be elevated to the status of a rugby hero, even as he racked up test caps (76) for the All Blacks, Super rugby appearances (a record 144) for the Highlanders, and provincial games (44) for his beloved Otago.

Loyalty was another factor in the Ben Smith story. At a time when schoolboy poaching is topical, and rugby players change clubs like they are playing golf, Smith is a one-school, one-club, one-province and one-franchise stalwart. If it is slightly painful to picture him playing for a French club, there is consolation he will not be seen in Crusaders red or Hurricanes yellow.

So, too, did his physical stature endear him to the rugby community. The "skinny white boy" might be disappearing from a professional landscape dominated by behemoths, but Smith showed there was still a place for a bloke with — and how to say this without sounding harsh? — a relatively underwhelming physique.

For all those attributes, it must not be forgotten that he was supremely talented. Skill, as much as dedication and a level head, got Smith to the top.

He didn’t run through people like Jonah Lomu. He didn’t produce constant moments of eye-popping wizardry like Jeff Wilson — though he had all the tools in his bag. He wasn’t the sort of defender to cut people in half.

What did he do well? Everything. He might have been the most accomplished all-round player in the All Blacks, so good in every facet of the game he was regularly shunted from his preferred fullback position because coaches just knew he would play well with any number on his back.

The sight of Smith leaving the field with head knocks in recent years has caused concern. For that reason, and because of his wonderful service to New Zealand rugby, few will begrudge his decision to leave at the end of next year.

Treasure every minute he plays for the Highlanders — then wish our Ben the best.

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