Ben Smith set to sign off in style

Ben Smith. Photo Getty
Ben Smith. Photo Getty
The immediate upside of Ben Smith's imminent sabbatical is that the All Blacks vice-captain appears primed to sign off in style.

After initial focus fell on newbies involved in the All Blacks' 34-man wider training squad for their two-day camp in Christchurch, attention turned to elder statesmen Smith and Jerome Kaino, and how best to ensure longevity.

Smith (31) is the latest All Black, following in the footsteps of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, to pencil in a four-month break away from rugby in an effort to preserve body and mind with thoughts of the 2019 World Cup firmly in mind.

The Highlanders fullback is expected to start the first two tests against the Wallabies in Sydney and Dunedin, before taking the rest of the year off - missing eight tests. That should allow him to return refreshed for next year's Super Rugby campaign.

"I'm not going to play any rugby at all," Smith, a 62-test veteran, said. "It gives me an opportunity to do some other things that I think will help me.

"My brother hasn't met our youngest, Walter, so we're going to go over to Aussie for a trip. We've got a few trips planned. We're going to go to the States for a wee bit. It's a real chance to take a bit of a break from footy and get my body right.

''It will also give me an opportunity to have a real good preseason going into next year's rugby season. That was the thinking."

Smith has endured a frustrating stop-start 2017 with concussion concerns, later diagnosed as an inner-ear infection, taking him out of the last two Lions tests.

Stepping aside after the next two outings comes with an element of risk in that the fullback role is likely to be handed to Jordie Barrett, the young Hurricanes talent who also brings goal kicking qualities. Long-term, though, Smith's leadership, voice and exceptional option-taking make him an incredibly valuable asset.

"There's always going to be opportunities but if I'm good enough I'll get back, and if I'm not... that's the beauty of the All Blacks. The best players play. I've just got to back myself that with that time I want to be really humming coming into next year. I felt that was the best way to really push for the next couple of years."

In the short-term, Smith will continue to mentor the All Blacks fullback contenders but his lack of recent game-time, combined with the pending absence, means he is more motivated than ever to make his mark in the next two tests.

"If selected I want to bring the energy. I'm excited because I haven't been able to play a lot of footy. Just being able to play is maybe something that in the past I've taken for granted a wee bit. It's something that's showed me just how lucky we are to get out and do something we love."

While Smith prepares to take his contractual break, Kaino has decided to forgo his.

Injuries - the latest minor knee surgery just prior to the Lions series - forced Kaino to spend time on the sideline; time, he feels, that allowed him to refresh. The 34-year-old prolonged his career with a three-year stint in Japan after the 2011 World Cup, and while the Highlanders' Liam Squire is now applying pressure for the blindside role, Kaino is not ready to step aside anytime soon.

"I've got the option in my contract," Kaino said.

"I was weighing it up but you've got to decide if it is going to benefit your career and it's on an individual basis. I got to a point where I felt taking a break might be detrimental to me and where my body was at so I decided not to take it. I feel the more rugby I play, the better I get.

"I'm just going to take it campaign by campaign but at the moment I'm feeling good and loving playing. I'm not going to put a date or time on it. Every player knows when the time is right. Hopefully when that time comes I'll be able to make that decision on my terms."

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