Smith strides through pain barrier
November 27, 2008
Smith made his debut for the All Blacks in 2004 but has only 23 Test caps to his name © Getty Images
Conrad Smith still has a spring in his step, despite being troubled by a groin injury since the All Blacks triumphant Tri-Nations rugby campaign.
The nagging pain in his groin has been a discomfort he has willing to bear during a breakthrough season for the 27-year-old centre. Injuries, both serious and niggling, have been ever-present since Smith was identified as a modern-day Bruce Robertson -- a midfield distributor who relied on guile rather than brute force to set up his wings.
He made his test debut on the All Blacks' end of year tour in 2004 but until this 15-test season his appearances have been sporadic at best. A badly broken leg prompted his longest lay-off during the 2006 Super 14 and after he eventually recovered, a nasty eye injury and hamstring issues left him a touch-and-go candidate for last year's World Cup.
He was ultimately taken to France on trust but featured only in the group stage romps over Portugal, Scotland and Romania as Mils Muliaina was repositioned from fullback for the big games. Smith has started 10 of the All Blacks 14 tests this year and would have also played against Wales last weekend had he not aggravated his groin problem against the Irish in Dublin.
He and Wellington teammate Ma'a Nonu -- another who has cemented his spot this season -- have been the first choice midfield pairing since the Irish test in Wellington on June 7. Waikato centre Richard Kahui has featured only in the lesser games or through injury, while Isaia Toeava has had to settle for a utility role off the bench.
The rivalry between Smith and Kahui is set to continue for some time yet however. Smith appreciated the vote of confidence Graham Henry issued when naming his strongest team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday.
"Conrad has been the No 1 centre coming over here -- and he hasn't done anything to change that," the head coach explained of his one change to the team that won 29-9 over Wales in Cardiff. Physically there is little between the pair -- both are listed at 1.86-metres and 95kg although Kahui appears to have the edge in terms of strength and speed.
Smith, meanwhile, has the savvy that comes with 23 tests of experience, and exceptional vision. And, most importantly, he has been close to fully fit this year.
"That (the Wales test) was my first game all year I've missed through injury," Smith said. "I didn't miss a game of Super 14 -- I would have played more this year than the last two years combined."
The only tests he missed due to selection this year were the second against England at Christchurch in June -- where Kahui was handed his debut -- and Scotland in Edinburgh on November 8, considered the weakest obstacle to the Grand Slam. That welcome workload has had one down side -- an overuse injury common among footballers who cover vast distances throughout the season.
"It's quite common over here with the soccer players, it's just wear and tear," he said. "It's something a couple of months off should fix. That's what I'm hanging out for now."
Well, not just yet. A final hurrah against England is still the priority for Smith, who is looking forward to a midfield battle involving former Wellington and Hurricanes teammate Riki Flutey -- England's adopted second five-eighth.
"You heard the talk about him maybe playing for England but it was something you didn't think could ever happen. It'll be a bit strange but obviously I'm happy for him."
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