We had the pleasure of interviewing one of the best centres of the past decade and gained an insight into his views on the Lions chances this year, grassroots rugby comparisons between Europe and New Zealand, and also asked what the future holds for Conrad Smith.
How did you find the transition from playing rugby in New Zealand to taking on the Top 14 in France?
If I’m honest in terms of training, it wasn’t all that big an adjustment, as Simon Mannex - who had been involved with the All Blacks - was part of the Pau coaching staff, so in terms of training structures things weren’t that different. Also, these day all the best training methods are shared around so much of the pros will be doing the same kind of thing no matter what side of the equator you’re playing on.
For me, the biggest difference was the season structure. The European domestic leagues are split into long 10 month stints, whereas in Super Rugby the season is only 4 or 5 months long.
I feel the way it’s done back home (New Zealand) favours the national teams and I’m quite surprised in the way the leagues are structured in Europe. We enjoy our domestic season and then get into international training camps for a good amount of time, so the team chemistry is at its optimum.
The longer you train together, the more you learn from each other and I think this is one of the reasons for the success of the All Blacks…During competitions like the 6 Nations, players are enjoying their test matches and then returning to club rugby to play alongside different people…I just can’t see how this is beneficial.
I’ve also got to say that the French rugby crowds are epic - the first match is like a baptism of fire! The atmosphere they create week in week out was like nothing I’d ever experienced within New Zealand, and the influence a rowdy and lively crowd can have on a referee is rather large – although I imagine I’d be the same if I had a sell-out stadium screaming at me.
Once You've Hung Up Your Boots, What Do You See the Future Holding For You?
Well, I’ve signed on at Pau for next season and I’m 90% sure that it'll be my last but to be honest I thought this year would be so who knows.
I love the French setup and a potential coaching experience would be exciting, however I always thought I would look to move on from rugby. I have a law degree that I worked very hard for, so it would be great to be able to use it. When it comes down to it, I'd like to do whatever makes my family happy.
What’s it been like playing under coach Carl Hayman?
In short, he’s been great.
Speaking truthfully, I never predicted him to get into coaching as he was never one for meetings and paperwork but he’s doing a brilliant job with the Pau forwards and I know that all of the players have a huge amount of respect for him.
I think to be a successful coach you need to be respected by your players and he definitely is. Carl’s a strong communicator, so when he speaks the players listen.
Ok, let’s move on to the Lions; Who would your Lions Starting Centres be?
Now that’s a really tough question!
I’m a big fan of both Jonathan Joseph and Jonathan Davies, however considering I think Farrell will start at 12, I’d pick JJ because of their experienced partnership.
I’m also a big fan of young Garry Ringrose, however this tour is maybe a little premature for him.
Where do you think the key on-pitch battles will take place?
The great thing about this test series is that there will be battles all over the pitch from 1-15!
I think the contest at scrum half will be epic, and we don’t even know who will start there for either side yet, such is the internal competition – this means whoever starts will want to fight very hard for their place!
7, 8, 9 and 10 will be where the matches are won and lost for me though. These guys make the key tackles and have the most ball in-hand, and so it’s up to them to control the game.
I think Sexton Vs Beauden Barritt could be a fascinating match up and there could be fireworks!
Do you still hold affiliations with your first rugby club?
Yes, I’m actually Vice President of my old University Club at Wellington College. Unlike most of the All Blacks boys, who got snapped up very early into their club rugby careers and played their way through the age groups, I played around 60 games for my first club, and only turned pro around 21 years old.
So yes, I have a strong bond with my old club.
We actually started doing something within the All Blacks where each week one of us would don an old jersey from our club days and teach the others about the club. It dawned on one of our coaches that club rugby was getting lost, so he decided to revamp it – I thought it was a great idea.
How Important is it that the game’s grassroots are supported?
I think it’s imperative because I think the power of the amateur game is rather special to rugby.
Rugby in New Zealand is all about playing the game you love, and if I had never turned pro, I genuinely believe I’d still be playing for my local club.
However, there is the fear that like in many sports, people play at a young age but drop off if they aren’t successful in turning pro – we need to ensure that the grassroots game flourishes because in rugby, camaraderie is the key; that’s what sport is all about!