My late grandfather Garth ‘Shorty’ McDonald loved the game and he loved Otago rugby. A woodwork teacher at Taieri College (then Taieri High School) for 40 years, he taught the likes of Sir Steve Hansen, and cherished a commemorative pin he once received from All Blacks captain Kel Tremain during a school visit. A first five in his playing days, Pop often joked about having a sore foot from always trying to kick dropped goals with the old damp leather ball, because the score used to be worth more than a try.
He was old school, he knew his footy and he knew quality when he saw it. So, when he started singing the praises of a young Ben Smith, I paid extra attention. Pop would often talk about his favourite All Blacks. One in particular was the great Bob Scott, a fullback of immense talent and class and considered by many as one of the finest players to have ever pulled on the black jersey. Pop had seen Scott play, and often drew comparisons between his style and that of a young Ben Smith.
He spoke of Smith’s command of the three Ps; position, possession and pace, as made famous in the book The ABC of Rugby, written by All Black Charlie Saxton, the man who captained Scott and the famous Kiwis side during the wonderfully successful 1945-46 tour of Europe after the Second World War. Armed with this insight, it was a pleasure watching Smith excel so quickly in Otago colours, but perhaps not surprising for those in the Deep South. I was born and raised in Dunedin, playing for the Pirates club as a junior alongside the likes of Glenn Dickson, an Otago teammate and friend of Smith’s who would go on to play 46 games for the province. Smith kicked around in the same grades for Green Island before becoming a standout in the King’s High School First XV. He went on to appear for the New Zealand Under 21 side in 2007 and, when finally he got his opportunity to pull on the blue and gold of Otago, he shone.
Around the same time as Smith began to tear up defences in the NPC, I was making my start in broadcasting. I distinctly remember the newsroom chatter around the selection of the All Blacks team for the 2009 end of year tour – who was a shoe-in, who might miss out. When the name Ben Smith was suggested as one who might have piqued the interest of the selectors after a season that saw him score six tries for Otago, the general response was, “Who?” And so it was, Smith was selected for the tour north and deservedly so. On the national scene, or anywhere north of Rakaia, at least, he was a good old-fashioned bolter. As it turned out, I was lucky enough to interview Smith on radio, after he was selected. In a sign of the quality of the man, he carried himself then as he has during his whole career, unassuming, modest and exuding a calmness that can be likened to that of an accountant telling you that your taxes are in order.
‘Ben from Accounts’ – has there ever been a more accurate nickname? He may not have been one for overindulging the media as a wordsmith, but his actions on the field – during a glittering 84-Test career that included a famous Super Rugby title for the Highlanders and a historic Rugby World Cup on foreign soil in 2015 – spoke of his tremendous talent.
For a player who became without doubt one of our greatest, the start to Smith’s career was a somewhat inauspicious one. I remember settling in to watch his Test debut versus Italy at the famed San Siro Stadium in Milan, 2009. It was a big day for Highlanders fans as another cult hero, Mike Delany, was also making his debut. In Smith’s very first touch as an All Black, he climbed into the air to claim the high ball, and lost it forward. Thankfully, it wasn’t an omen. The All Blacks would go on to win that day, and, as it turned out in the years that followed, so would Smith, becoming one of the All Blacks’ safest pairs of hands whether it be at fullback, wing or centre.
Like me, Smith often talked about going to Carisbrook every other weekend after junior rugby to watch his heroes run out in the blue and gold. Known as ‘The House of Pain’ for many visiting teams, for Smith and others who went on to pull on the jersey, it was the ‘The House of Dreams.’
I don’t just consider Smith my favourite player because of what he achieved on the field, but for his journey and the passion he has for his province. It’s players like Smith who are so important for our game; a nod to the past of the player that forms the backbone of the union, and a player future generations can aspire to emulate, à la our heroes of the golden days of Otago rugby in the 1990s. Smith showed what’s possible through hard work and sheer determination to be the best. I think his rugby journey can be summed up by a phrase we often heard yelled by passionate supporters like my Pop from the sidelines on Saturday: “Pin your ears back!”
Pop passed away in 2020 at the age of 87. Although we didn’t always see eye to eye at the card table, there was never any disagreement over a three-star ale, or the undeniable talent and class of one of our favourite players, Benjamin Robert Smith. A piece of gold, out of the blue.
Subscribe here to get future Rugby News issues delivered to your door.