Ben Smith's break strikes important blow in rugby's war of attrition
OPINION: Ben Smith's timing might raise an eyebrow, but certainly not his intent.
Eight tests (maximum) skipped for a sabbatical that has been well telegraphed since he signed his new contract with NZ Rugby earlier this year sounds a lot. But it's not. It's the proverbial drop in the rugby ocean of matches this guy will play in his career.
And strategically it's a move that has a lot going for it as the world's best fullback looks to get himself through to the 2019 World Cup, and possibly beyond, with more than fumes in his tank. It just makes all kinds of sense.
Let's get one thing straight here: the Highlanders and All Blacks No 15 has well and truly earned the right to take the rest of the rugby season off after the Dunedin test against the Wallabies on August 26. The guy plays his rugby with complete and utter commitment for 10 months a year, and if an extended break and proper pre-season for 2018 are what he believes he needs, then who are we to argue with that?
Kick in some family time and a decent mental refresh, and it's a move that Smith not only deserves, but most probably needs.
This is Ben Smith knowing what is right for Ben Smith. This is NZ Rugby understanding sometimes that player welfare has to come ahead of putting the best cattle possible on the park every week for the All Blacks.
Common sense over dollars and cents.
The only thing that's slightly unusual about the reported sabbatical is that it's coming on the back of a season where he has played minimal footy because of ongoing issues over what was first thought to be concussion, but then later revealed as an inner-ear problem.
Smith is not exactly worn out. In fact fresh as a daisy might be a more apt description.
So it seems a shame to kick in a break when he's already missed a heap of games for health reasons, and was probably going to be as sprightly as he's been in a long time for the back end of the season.
But one can only presume these things are planned long in advance, and that once the die is cast it can't be uncast. Also that an All Blacks coach doesn't want all his old hands taking their breaks at the same time.
So while it might have made sense for Smith to push his break back a year, other factors would have come into play. Like with his young family, this might still be the best time for Smith to step away from rugby. Like maybe Kieran Read or Sam Whitelock or Owen Franks have something similar in the works for next year, so the genial Dunedinite didn't want to impinge on their plans.
Regardless, it strikes me as an exceedingly smart move with the bigger picture in mind.
Our rugby players cannot be expected to play from February to the start of December, and continue to hit their high standards for both franchise and country.
It's just not possible in a sport as brutal and unforgiving as rugby. It also wears on you mentally having to spend so long in the "environment", working through the seven-day cycle of getting yourself back up for the next step into the gladiatorial arena.
So moves like this have to now be considered the norm among the more experienced campaigners. They worked exceedingly well for the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, and they will work equally well for Smith, Read, Whitelock, Franks and co as they figure out how to stay on top of their games over an extended period.
New Zealand has stayed ahead of the chasing pack in international rugby for a while now based on our ability to be creative, to think on our feet, and to adapt the system to what best suits the All Blacks.
But the recent Lions tour, and other events up north, have shown that challengers are looming. That the All Blacks' place on that iron throne could be under threat.
So sabbaticals could be just one tool Steve Hansen uses to keep his men in fighting shape for when it really counts. Others could be spared the northern tour. Or sit out parts of the Rugby Championship. Whatever it takes to have their load lightened.
It doesn't make sense to have the best depth in the game if you don't use it wisely.
Smith will be missed, for sure. But Izzy Dagg, Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett and Nehe Milner-Skudder would happily add: "Don't fret. We've got this!"
The reality is if rugby isn't going to protect its players' best interests, then they need to act themselves. Well done Ben Smith for being responsible with your career, your family and, most importantly, yourself.