Time for Ben Smith to cash in on career?

Shifting seamlessly between fullback and wing for the All Blacks, Ben Smith has already defied...
Shifting seamlessly between fullback and wing for the All Blacks, Ben Smith has already defied age which claimed many victims in the backs. Photo: Getty Images

No one could begrudge Ben Smith signing off his time in New Zealand after the World Cup.

By that point, he will be 33, and nearing twilight years when the time to cash in grows more apparent.

Shifting seamlessly between fullback and wing for the All Blacks, Smith has already defied age which claimed many victims in the All Blacks' outside back division.

He also refused to succumb to career-threatening concussions, returning from a summer sabbatical in sparking form for the All Blacks.

His performances in the two Bledisloe Cup test matches earlier this year in particular were some of his best in the black jersey.

But come next year, and the conclusion of the World Cup in Japan, it would seemingly make sense for Smith to follow the likes of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, all of whom departed to France at similar stages after securing successive global crowns in 2015.

It could even be Smith spends seven to eight months at Pau after the World Cup, before moving to Japan.

Smith has been in this position before, recommitting to his beloved Highlanders and NZ Rugby through to 2020 early last year. But, perhaps tellingly, an early termination clause was included to give him the option of moving on after the World Cup.

Pau president Bernard Pontneau chased Smith's services previously, and with Kiwis Simon Mannix, Carl Hayman and Conrad Smith leading the coaching team, the ambitious French club have again come calling.

Pontneau is believed to have made trips to visit Smith, and Ardie Savea.

This time, for Smith at least, the timing may be right.

The Highlanders co-captain is immensely passionate about his southern roots. But he is also a dedicated husband and father. Given his loyalty, leadership and quality of service, he has certainly earned the chance to set up his young family.

"Ben is a senior player. He's weighed his options up several times before recommitting to New Zealand. He'll be going through the same process now," NZ Rugby head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum said.

"This time, potentially after two World Cup campaigns, the sort of things he is thinking about are obvious."

While losing someone at Smith's juncture is understandable, watching another 25-year-old at the peak of his powers walk out the door to European riches would not sit so comfortably.

"Ardie is a little bit different. He's younger," Lendrum said. "As we understand it that club has significant interest in him and we're just working through that with him at the moment. Clearly we want him to stay."

Of other big-spending French clubs in the hunt for All Blacks off contract after the World Cup, Paris-based Racing 92 are thought to be pursuing Ryan Crotty and Lyon, who have one of the biggest budgets in the Top 14, are keen to lure Nehe Milner-Skudder.

"We'll be expecting some departures naturally at the end of the World Cup cycle that's what happens. The number of players you're likely to see beyond that leave out of the All Blacks group doesn't appear to be a significant number at this point in time."

- By Liam Napier

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