Smith master of versatility

Ben Smith runs the ball for the All Blacks against Australia. Photo: Getty Images
Ben Smith runs the ball for the All Blacks against Australia. Photo: Getty Images
As masters of cliché and conditioned to give ingrained responses, most rugby players will say they are happy to play in whatever position they are picked.

Don't believe them, however. It's not true. There is one obvious exception: Ben Smith. He is to be believed when he says he doesn't mind.

His performance never drops regardless of what role he plays.

Smith is a remarkable footballer whose ability to influence a test is as great as any of the recognised high impact performers of the last decade.

But what makes him such a remarkable force is that he has been able to dance around from wing to fullback — fullback to wing and even start a handful of games at centre and finish many at second-five and not once look out of position.

Could any other footballer of the last decade have so easily and effortlessly switched jobs like that?

The answer is no and that's why Smith is on track to be considered among the best All Blacks of the professional age.

Ma'a Nonu had his power and direct running; Dan Carter had his tactical control; Beauden Barrett his incredible pace and vision and Smith has this freakish versatility that enables him to pop into any jersey the coaches want and somehow get his hands on the ball, beat defenders, make good decisions and bring the All Blacks to life.

In his last two tests at fullback, he has brought himself into the frontline more to act as a second, first receiver and in Nelson last weekend he was especially good in that role.

What he'll no doubt do against the Springboks in Wellington when he reverts to the right wing on Saturday night is to re-invent himself more as a specialist kick-chaser.

When he's on the wing, the All Blacks tend to put contestable attacking kicks his way and he uses his ability as the best aerial player in world rugby to win the ball back.

He also tends to score more tries when he plays on the wing than at fullback and he'll hold his width, bide his time and find a way to latch on to the end of attacking moves.

The point is, it won't matter to Smith that he's on the wing.

As to why he has been shifted there after two brilliant tests at fullback — that will be because the coaches feel the Boks have a set piece that will ensure they win plenty of ball and they will inevitably look to kick much of it high and chase.

If that's the Boks' game, the All Blacks feel they will be better equipped to deal with it by having Jordie Barrett at fullback and Smith on the wing.

That configuration, with the must-have Rieko Ioane on the left wing, is the combination they prefer to field against physical sides that will look to stifle the All Blacks' attacking opportunities and subject them to an aerial bombardment.

Few other sides in world rugby could be so fluid in that area for the simple reason they don't have a player like Smith who can seamlessly transition from wing to fullback and open up all the possibilities such versatility brings.

All Blacks team to play South Africa at Westpac Stadium on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm is:

15. Jordie Barrett
14. Ben Smith
13. Anton Lienert-Brown
12. Ryan Crotty
11. Rieko Ioane
10 Beauden Barrett
9. Aaron Smith
8. Kieran Read
7. Sam Cane
6. Liam Squire
5. Scott Barrett
4. Sam Whitelock
3. Owen Franks
2. Codie Taylor
1. Karl Tu'inukuafe

Reserves: Liam Coltman, Tim Perry, Ofa Tuungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Damian McKenzie.

- Gregor Paul

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