Is this the beginning of the end for Ben Smith?

Ben Smith has been shifted to the wing. Photo: Getty Images
Ben Smith has been shifted to the wing. Photo: Getty Images

You wonder whether his shift to the wing for tonight's test against France might be the beginning of the end for Ben Smith.

Not from a quality point of view, let's hasten to add. Even at 33 (his age at the next World Cup), Smith will be a force. His work under the high ball, that instinctive counter-attacking, the ability to ghost away from tacklers, will still be a mark of the man.

And it's not as if playing on the wing has been a secondary occupation. He has now started 24 tests as a winger, 25 as a fullback (plus 6 as a centre, 10 as a substitute) – and almost every time on the wing, he has impressed with his finishing, assists and an highly developed knack of reading the play.

The man is an All Black great. So why this talk of an end? Well, not an end, exactly, but succession planning. It's a difficult art at the best of times but doubly so when a great is involved and triply so when the great has more than a nodding relationship with concussion. One more telling blow to the swede and Ben From Accounts could demote himself to the mail room, stamped and posted off to Former All Black territory.

Ben Smith training at Forsyth Barr Stadium yesterday. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Ben Smith training at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photos: Peter McIntosh

So it makes sense to select Jordie Barrett at 15. Much has been made of his form against the Lions last year and his high ball skills – but the selectors will also know that his thunderous boot is capable of long-range penalties, a handy weapon in tests.

Damien McKenzie, as expected, is seen as a bench player and hasn't yet convinced as an international first five-eighths. His helter-skelter running and unpredictability are tailor-made for the last quarter of a test match, when defences are tiring – and he can do that from 10, fullback or even wing.

We should not forget: only two years ago, Beauden Barrett was regarded in exactly the same way; a bench player who could make things happen when injected. McKenzie has time, though the Crusaders' Richie Mo'unga may not be denied for long.

If he is healthy, with an unscrambled brain, Smith will be in the All Blacks squad for next year's World Cup in Japan. Just as his inclusion on the wing last night signals that the All Black selectors would much rather have him than not have him, Smith's experience, mana and class will see him at his second World Cup (he wasn't selected in 2011).

Ben Smith leaves the field after picking up a concussion during the first test against the Lions....
Ben Smith leaves the field after picking up a concussion during the first test against the Lions last year. Photo: Getty Images

But even though Smith's ongoing vertigo was later explained away as an inner ear problem, it wasn't his ears he was referring to when he told a women's magazine recently that he somehow scarily forgot his wife was pregnant with their second child.

His involvement at the top level could be ended at any time. The replacement options are many when you consider Barrett, McKenzie, last year's All Blacks David Havili and Matt Duffie and promising newcomers who can also fill wing-fullback slots: George Bridge and Solomon Alaimalo.

But here's the thing – while we still have Smith, can we play him at fullback, please?

In spite of all the aforementioned logic, let's play the world's best fullback (stand over there, Israel Folau, who might win the world's best fullback title if he could only marshal the gay vote) at fullback.

Smith's last two tests were both on the wing, against Australia in the Rugby Championship before his sabbatical last year. Typically, he scored in both wins and was yet again impressive. This was written before tonight's test; he may well have had a scorcher.

Waratahs halfback Israel Folau and Highlanders halfback Ben Smith. Photos: Getty Images
Waratahs halfback Israel Folau and Highlanders halfback Ben Smith. Photos: Getty Images

Back in the June 2016 series against the Welsh, he was at fullback in the first test and his full range of skills was seen in glorious technicolour in engineering Waisake Naholo's excellent long-range try. He was shifted to the wing for the next two Welsh tests – where he again scored in both matches, ran like a scalded cat and was involved in telling link and set-up play.

And, as England coach Eddie Jones said this week (he selected fullback Mike Brown on the wing against South Africa), the back three in the modern game are composed of a left fullback, a central fullback and a right fullback and they all interchange.

Yes…but…that little bit of extra time and space at fullback suits Smith perfectly and, succession planning regardless, it would be good to have him there and good for we fans to see one of the greats in action in his best position.

Playing him at fullback would allow Naholo (Hansen has called him "special") back in the side. The pair simply gel, courtesy of their long association in the Highlanders; Naholo is also a considerable weapon when it comes to turnovers – a vital skill in tests where the battle for possession is intensified – not to mention his attacking skills.

Jordie Barrett and co have a full Rugby Championship and an end of year tour to hone their fullback skills; the former seems an ideal time to give "Bender" a spell or three.

Playing Ben Smith at fullback would allow Naholo (Hansen has called him "special") back in the side. Photo: Getty Images
Playing Ben Smith at fullback would allow Naholo (Hansen has called him "special") back in the side. Photo: Getty Images

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