The heir to the Ben Smith throne
Few outside backs eclipse the pedigree of All Blacks and Highlanders fullback Ben Smith in any aspect of back three play, which is what makes the man jetting off to Pau after the World Cup a Rolls Royce of a player. While he has been shifted onto the wing by New Zealand boss Steve Hansen of late to make room for the Richie Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett 10-15 playmaking axis, Smith leaves a giant hole to be filled in the famous All Blacks roster.
Like many of the great players coming to the end of the chapter of their life that encapsulates international rugby, talk of their possible successors comes bubbling to the surface the closer we get to their final bow. Ben Smith, while lesser in profile than the likes of Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Dan Carter, is no different. Although, in Sam Cane, Sonny Bill-Williams and Beauden Barrett, this trio's successors were ear-marked years before the great men last wore the black jersey. With Smith, the line of succession is, by comparison, murky.
Smith’s role is the type that provides great comfort to coaches, an outside back proficiently adept at both wing and fullback, while also able to step in at outside centre when injuries demand a shakeup. You’ll see this type of player in many international sides, often paired with thoroughbred wingers whose sole purpose is to bamboozle the opposition with searing strike rates, fast feet, tremendous power for players outside the eight-man pack and are usually instant fan favourites. For the former of these two roles, think Australia’s Reece Hodge and England’s Elliot Daly, for the latter, Julian Savea, Reiko Ioane and Australia’s Marika Koroibete.
A Hurricanes man and the younger brother of fellow All Blacks Scott and Beauden, Jordie Barrett is a potential candidate for Smith’s successor and Ioane’s partner in crime. The lanky 6ft5” Taranaki native is a man of supreme skill and exceptional adaptability, capped at just 20 years of age against Samoa and earning his first ever international start in the fifteen jersey against no lesser opposition than the British and Irish Lions in 2017. Barrett is both a man of supreme potential and, apparently, enough mental steel to be thrown in at the deep end in a series decider against the greatest and most daunting opposition of them all. The closest the All Blacks will come to know what it feels like to face, well, the All Blacks.
While the youngest of the Barrett brothers seemed the obvious beneficiary of Smith’s impending Test retirement, it seems another candidate has taken the selectors’ fancy. George Bridge, the Crusaders wing/fullback, is currently vying for the chance to leapfrog Barrett as the prominent ‘steady Eddie’ option in the All Blacks’ back three, earning a second consecutive start this weekend against Tonga after playing his role in the 36-0 dismantling of the Wallabies last month. Ioane, meanwhile, has been subbed out for Bridge’s fellow Crusader Sevu Reece as New Zealand’s strike wing.
In that final Bledisloe drubbing in which New Zealand avenged the previous week’s 47-26 record defeat in Perth, Bridge provided his most convincing audition yet for a regular starting role. Bridge’s work rate on the wing at Eden Park could have been rivalled by only Smith himself in the current All Blacks crop, and is perhaps challenged on the international scene by England’s Jack Nowell and Ireland’s Keith Earls alone in terms of productivity. While less likely to spark a moment of genius or throw an offload that will invariably go viral, Bridge falls closer to the Smith mould than his rivals.
Assured and yet an unassuming character , Bridge could well struggle for minutes during the big games during the World Cup with Smith, Ioane and Beauden Barrett featuring in a first-choice back three and Jordie being seen as more of a ‘finisher’ from the bench when the All Blacks are in need of a gear change to either see off fierce opponents or put the foot down on already broken foes. But, remove Smith from Steve Hansen’s equation and the likeliness of Bridge continuing in the starting XV ahead of Jordie, and alongside one of Ioane and Reece, sees a notable rise.
Like all of the great coaches, Hansen is not afraid of making a big call in selection when a big call is exactly what is required. It is the type of mindset that saw Ioane replace Savea ahead of the 2017 Lions tour. It is this type of thinking that could easily see Bridge make an eleventh-hour bid for a permanent role in Hansen’s run-on side should he opt to swerve away from the Barrett-Mo’unga and return Smith to the 15 jersey; as he has done against Tonga this weekend.
Keep an eye on Bridge in Japan, we may be about to see a repeat of Nehe Milner-Skudder’s rise to the starting XV that lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2015. For here is a man of both great rugby potential and the most elusive, valuable of character traits: a ceaseless level of self-application.