Masterful play elevates Smith to the top

Date published: October 27 2015

Ben Smith always appears happy to fly under the radar but a masterful performance under the high ball at Twickenham confirmed again what an illustrious player he is.

He is also having some year.

The Highlanders co-captain inspired the men from Otago to win a first Super Rugby earlier this year, but after Saturday's semi-final win over South Africa he has as good a chance as ever to add a World Cup winners medal.

The Springboks' preference to kick the ball high, and what could be best described as an overflow from the proverbial buckets of rain, meant Smith was always going to be busy.

But in a game where several players impressed he was a cut above. A classy performance was backed up by the moment he helped a devastated Eben Etzebeth to his feet after the final whistle.

Smith was moved to cover Nehe Milner-Skudder's wing spot after the All Blacks realised South Africa were looking to target the winger with their kicking game. One brilliant take from Smith, rising high as he came slightly off his wing infield to claim the ball late in the second half, kept South Africa pinned deep.

"Ben is our best high-ball catcher. That's not to say that Nehe can't do it, but let's just put the best guy there to catch it," All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said afterwards.

"Throughout the game, he was brilliant. It's a difficult thing to do under the conditions, it's even difficult when the ball is dry.

"It allowed us to get out of trouble and retain the ball."

Israel Folau is still the game's blockbuster full-back, and currently in fact the game is lucky to have so many top players with 15 on their backs – Halfpenny, Kearney, Hogg, Brown – including Joaquín Tuculet and Ayumu Goromaru at this World Cup.

Each of those players have their deficencies however. Smith's are trickier to uncover.

In conditions where the ball has a mind of its own on a slippery afternoon, he's a safety net. On a dry track when running rugby is called for he's lethal.

No one has made more metres in this World Cup at the time of writing and back in this year's Super Rugby competition, Smith can be found in the top five for most carries, offloads, defenders beaten and metres made.

Arguing against the claim that Smith is the best full-back in the world will be difficult if his remarkable level of consistency is backed up by a first World Cup winners' medal next weekend. 

by Ben Coles