Where should Ben Smith play?

Ben Smith is congratulated by Aaron Smith in the test against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium in June this year. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Ben Smith is congratulated by Aaron Smith in the test against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium in June this year. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Ben Smith is the oldest winger to ever play for the All Blacks. But age does not seem to be weighing on his shoulders. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn  asks: is he is better for the All Blacks on the wing, or in the No15 jersey? And does age or even the number written on the back of the jersey mean anything these days?

Let's get one thing clear - Ben Smith is not a centre.

That was an experiment in 2013 which was conveniently forgotten about the following year.

But whether he is a winger or a fullback, it does not seem to make much difference to the Highlanders' co-captain or the team he is playing for.

The 32-year-old has played the vast majority of his 144 games for the Highlanders at fullback.

His first couple of years for the franchise were on the wing, with Israel Dagg preferred at fullback.

But when Dagg scampered off to the Crusaders - good riddance by the way - Smith became the fullback and has played there more or less for the next eight seasons.

With the All Blacks it has been a bit more of a juggle. He started out on the wing in 2009, and when he became more of a regular in the 2013 season, he continued to appear in the No 14 jersey.

He set a Rugby Championship record in 2013, scoring eight tries in six matches, all from the wing.

He first shifted to fullback in 2014 when Dagg was injured and made a memorable debut in that jersey with a man-of-the-match performance against England at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

From there he has been mainly a fullback, but mixed at times with Dagg and Jordie Barrett, ending up on the wing.

All up Smith has played 69 tests. He has scored 22 test tries when on the right wing and 10 when at fullback.

So he seems to be more productive on the wing in terms of scoring tries.

But this is not schoolboy rugby, where scoring tries is all anyone cares about.

One would think fullback would have him more involved in the game. But the way the game is played now, wingers and fullbacks are almost the same.

In the old days, wingers kept to their side of the paddock. The tramlines, running 15m out from the sideline, were their domain, and they could never stray.

These days, though, the winger is seen as part of an attacking back-three option. They can stay back there and link quickly with the other winger and fullback. Wingers roam all round the field and pop up on both sides.

At times on Saturday night against the Wallabies, the All Black players were almost positionless. Locks playing like midfield backs, wingers were getting stuck in like props.

When the All Blacks dominate, and that seems to be somewhere between very often and all the time, Smith can play any position and play well.

And as for age, brains and sports science advances mean Smith's advancing years mean very little. ( Incidentally, Bob Scott was older when he played fullback for the All Blacks in 1954.)

Smith, who turned 32 on June 1, is still keen, is being well compensated, and has spurned a big overseas offer. He may no longer be super-quick, but he is lightning-fast in the head. To him, age is just a number.

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