Conrad Smith sat down with Alexander Bisley ahead of the Rugby World Cup to discuss rugby’s global growth, reverse colonialism, anthems and collective contracts.
AB: In Cory Jane’s biography, he say the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup nemesis the French, likely opponents in the Cardiff quarter-final, are hard to analyse because, well, they’re hard to analyse.
CS: [Laughs] That’s funny coming from Cory, I don’t know if analysis is his strong point. I’ve played the French a lot. I love playing them, they’re great players. I mean that is a label given to them a lot, they’re hard because they do things a little bit different. But to be honest they’ve got structures like any team. I think that they’ve got an ability to play a level of rugby that’s hard to live with. They believe that, so it always makes for great challenge. I’ve always enjoyed the time and tests I’ve had against them.
AB: You also enjoy London on the Northern Tour. Is that partly for your passion for history?
CS: Yeah there’s that. First thing it’s such a Kiwi base away from New Zealand. You always have people. Sometimes too many people wanting tickets, or that you want to see, and you have great support in the crowd. During your time off you’re always seeing some pretty amazing things. It’s not hard for the guys to enjoy themselves, their down time.
AB: There’s almost a reverse colonialism when it comes to rugby now – all these Kiwi coaches working with UK and Irish teams.
CS: Yeah, it’s a massive business. And Kiwi players. I look at France and it’s unreal how many Kiwis that are playing throughout the world. It’s a massive job market now, isn’t it? You’re right. It will be interesting to see where it ends up, whether it creates [the results]. Obviously there’s a lot of people out there with the idea bring us your knowledge. Whether that’s working or not, we’ll see.
AB: Vern Cotter has apparently brought in a hostage negotiator for Scotland’s preparations?
CS: I didn’t know that! New Zealand’s such a small market. I think it produces a lot of good coaches, but there are only so many teams and it’s pretty intensive, it’s like being a player in New Zealand.
I don’t think people realise that a lot of people go overseas not because of the money. It’s actually because a lot of that pressure is lifted when you’re going and living in another country, and you’re not having family and friends analysing every dropped ball.
AB: Do you enjoy seeing rugby take off in places like Georgia, who the All Blacks are playing during the pool stage?
CS: It’s awesome. When the Rugby World Cup got extended to include lesser nations, went from 16 to 20, some people rolled their eyes, and thought, “It’s just going to be blowout scores.” And there’s still an element of that, but I think the positives are far outweighing the odd one-sided scoreline. You’ve got to evolve and I think what the IRB has done in terms of growing rugby in those destinations has been outstanding.
AB: It’s also growing in Africa, countries like Namibia. Again, the All Blacks are playing Namibia during the pools. You volunteer with Kenyan charity So They Can. Those kids’ backgrounds was soccer, but you’ve been spreading the gospel of rugby?
CS: Yeah! They didn’t know a lot about rugby. In fact the first time I went there, even seeing an oval shaped ball was all very foreign to them. Over a few visits, and a lot of Kiwis in between myself, there’s a good rugby influence. Sevens is taking off over there! Kenya’s doing really well. They always have great joy because Kenya’s beaten the New Zealand Sevens team a couple of times, so they tell me that Kenya’s beaten the All Blacks [laughs, humorously throwing his hands in the air]. I’ve tried to explain the difference between them, but it never gets anywhere because they just start laughing and say that they’ve effectively beaten me!
AB: At the other end of the scale there are half a dozen teams that could win the Cup…
CS: Exactly. You wouldn’t have been able to say that in the other World Cups. It’s becoming progressively more competitive. Even in the last World Cup you’re talking about four or five teams winning, now it’s six or seven genuine teams that could make the final. It’s definitely something that puts rugby in a great spot in terms of a world game, as a competitive global game.
AB: Announcing you were going to Pau, New Zealand Rugby Union Boss Steve Tew singled out the work you’ve done with the Players’ Association Collective Contract and negotiations. Anything coming up that you’d hope to achieve as your final word there?
CS: I think I’ll stay involved with it even when I go to France. Particularly I love seeing and comparing it to other sports, a lot of the American sports, and soccer. Because they’ve been professional for so much longer and seeing how they do things, and what rugby can do better and learn from.
With more money coming into the game, it’s getting more and more issues that players and The Association are facing and that the NZRU are dealing with. They’ve done a great job so far, but there still are massive challenges. I think good thing, when you compare it to soccer, we’re in a good space to learn from the errors made. You can look at other sports and say ‘look, we don’t want to end up like that’. We’ve got that benefit. But it still requires a lot of work.
AB: What would you say to this line: “A week in politics is long, but a week after a big sports loss is even longer.”
CS: Yeah absolutely. I don’t know if you’re referring to the Super Rugby final, but yeah that was the longest week of my life, anyway.
AB: Singing the national anthem – still not the All Blacks’ strong point?
CS: I think it’s tricky with the haka.
AB: Because the team are so focused on giving the haka everything?
CS: Yeah. I know the anthem’s got a lot better in the time I’ve been involved. When I first started there were very few players that sung it, and the guys that sung it muttered it. It’s changed with personnel. Ali Williams, Richard Kahui – you figure out the guys who really enjoy doing it and I’d always stand with them.
I’m no blimmin’ tenor, but I enjoy singing it. But it’s never something we’ve talked about as a team. Whereas the haka that was something that we weren’t doing well, we felt. Then right about that time, that’s when Kapa o Pango came in. That’s our energy, whereas the other teams would have the anthem as their haka.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.