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All Blacks Bolter Flies Under The Radar

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Fuseworks Media
Ben Smith
Ben Smith

By Mark Geenty of NZPA

Milan, Nov 13 NZPA - If there is rugby footage of new All Blacks winger Ben Smith floating around in cyberspace, the Italians couldn't find it.

So discovered Italy's 39-test winger Kaine Robertson, also a New Zealander, as he began some homework on one of his opponents in Sunday's (3am NZT) test here.

"I tried Ben Smith and I couldn't really find too much on him, unfortunately. He's come from nowhere."

No worries, Kaine. A fair few New Zealanders are equally as uninformed on the All Blacks' mystery man, the absolute bolter in the 33-man squad for this tour who is set for his test debut at San Siro.

Not that Smith had any inklings he was in the frame last month either, despite some solid form for the Highlanders and an impressive Air NZ Cup for Otago at fullback.

"I didn't have any idea until the day the team got named. I thought I was going all right but I honestly didn't think I was going to get the call," Smith said.

"I was pretty happy with my form but there's some good players in New Zealand so I didn't expect it at all."

His parents Stu and Karen, and partner Katie Menzies -- a former national junior basketballer-turned-triathlete -- were equally astonished, and it was a hurried celebratory dinner at a Dunedin pizzeria with family and friends before he jetted off to Auckland.

It also meant rushed flight bookings for a proud Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be among the 80,000-strong crowd at San Siro, and Menzies, who will arrive later this month for a post-tour holiday.

Smith, educated at Kings High School, followed Nick Evans from the Green Island club into the All Blacks.

He did a gap year in Bristol in 2005, playing for Old Colstonians so "they're claiming me as their All Black".

He taught physical education, and even manned the school switchboard at lunchtimes before heading back to Dunedin to get serious about rugby.

But a year ago a black jersey looked an unlikely fit.

A broken foot ruled Smith out of pre-season training with the Highlanders, but he took six months off studying for a physical education degree to focus on footy.

"I just wanted a starting berth with the Highlanders and just play consistently week in, week out, then push on and try to have a good NPC."

His class was evident for the Highlanders as he showed all the ingredients of the modern wing/fullback; good hands under pressure, a good boot and perfect timing to hit a gap.

The time away from varsity and a solid professional season was the making of Smith, who credits the strength training at the Highlanders with giving him that crucial extra yard of pace.

"I've never realised I'm really fast or anything. I've always been mediocre. This year I worked with the strength and conditioning coach and working on getting explosive over the first 40 metres, just get that off the mark speed.

"I have got quicker this year. It's a bit of a shock to me when people say I look quick."

That time in the gym also helped Smith bulk up, an essential requirement of a test back nowadays. He's now a solid 91kg, but it's a struggle, and the dietitians are following him.

"They've got shakes all the time around here so I'm trying to load up on them. I think I have to get to about 95kg and it's always been a goal to put on weight.

"A couple of years ago I would have been battling to be 80kg. It is hard, I run around and all of a sudden I've dropped a few kilos."

Smith says the first three weeks on tour have been all about just learning. He roomed with senior pros Dan Carter, Mils Muliaina and Conrad Smith early on and picked their brains.

"I've roomed with a few of the big boys, and just found out what this is all about. I've been lucky enough to see what they do at training and just follow their lead that way."

Now he gets his chance in a back three with Sitiveni Sivivatu and fullback Cory Jane.

His biggest game up until now was the Super 14 in South Africa, or the local derby with the Crusaders.

A packed house at the one of the world's premier soccer stadiums is another level again, but Smith reflects the calm, level-headed attitude that got him this far.

"It's going to be massive. The Italians are going to get right behind their team. But I've just got to play my game and concentrate on running around on the field and doing my job.

"I don't think I'm going to get too fussed about the crowd. When you're getting stuck into the game the crowd doesn't really come into it."

NZPA

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