I bet you didn’t know this about the Hurricanes: the awesome Jerry “JC” Collins’ favourite feed is “free food,” fullback Brent Ward is a stamp collector and, most shockingly of all, centre Conrad Smith has a law degree with Honours.
“I get quite a lot of shit about it too,” Conrad faces a fair amount of good-natured hassling from his team mates. He’s dubbed, among other things, the “geek.” “I don’t care, I live it up…Tell the other guys to come see me if they’ve got any problems…I’m quite proud of it, talk it up to them and stuff.”
It’s worth having a career mapped out given the fickle nature of professional sport. Jerry tells Conrad, as Fred Dagg would have said, he doesn’t know he lucky is. “Someone like him got picked up from school before he had a chance [to get a degree]. He always talks to me about how lucky I am that I got my degree before I got taken in to play rugby.” JC is studying at Vic at the moment, though it’s difficult to see where it could fit into his exceptionally demanding, time-consuming commitments.
Conrad, the most academically qualified player in the Hurricanes, if not the Super 12, shatters the image that snobs like to have of the rugby boofhead. Conrad’s the changing face of the rugby player; illustrating that physical prowess and intellect are not mutually exclusive. Rhodes Scholar David Kirk, Captain of the 1987 World Champion All Blacks, remains the benchmark. Another model is recent All Black turned sometime commentator Mark Robinson, an Oxbridge graduate.
This time last year, Conrad was, just like you, reading Salient every Monday. Though, unlike most of you, he assures me he read it in the café, as opposed to using Salient as a substitute to paying attention in lectures.
Now, after a hard Hurricanes training, Conrad sits down for a chat with me. He plays down the difficulty of the practise regime, quipping “uni’s probably harder.” University harder than this? Then again, he is a graduate from Vic’s infamously gruelling legal Honours programme. Our man from our team, Conrad is an affable bloke. His Taranaki twang proudly proclaims his New Plymouth origins. One of the big discoveries of last year’s Wellington NPC team, he burst onto the scene mid-season.
Playing in a Hurricanes team with the legendary Tana Umaga, fellow All Black Ma’a Nonu, and with Tane Tuipulotu now in fine fettle, poses its problems. It’s difficult to get onto the bench, let alone off it.
Conrad remains philosophical. “I knew that. It’s something I could see from the start but it was something I’m still quite happy with. If I’ve got to learn off anyone, I might as well learn of these guys. If you’ve got to be behind a couple of guys it might as well be these ones.”
Rugby is a capricious game; Conrad played two preseason games before being sidelined with an injury. “But I’ve got used to persevering in my lowly career, so I’ll just wait for the opportunity.
“This time last year I wasn’t even given a trial for the [Hurricanes] B team. I played Clubs and Colts. Most of the colts were given trials but the coach thought I was too little and stuff.”
During our concise conversation, Conrad proves to be a sharp observer and commentator on the game. He seems to be taking full advantage of the experience, whether on or off the paddock.
In any case, Conrad says it’s awesome being part of the team. From the time the Hurricanes grouped together pre-season for a one month training session in New Plymouth, it’s been special. “Awesome environment… Hard trainings and that but a lot of good times.”
Speaking of schools of hard knocks, has Conrad been on the receiving end of one of those devastating tackles from JC? Conrad laughs his as he recounts his first practise with Jerry. “He said ‘I won’t tackle you too hard,’ and I said, I’ve seen you on TV mate.”
“He’s one of the nicest guys in the team, eh. Real good to all the boys.”
Conrad enjoys the challenge of taking on JC and co. “I try and push those boys, get a chance to tackle them and stuff. It’s quite fun.”
Smith also enjoyed the Hurricanes’ recent trip to South Africa, it was much better being over there as a sportsman rather than a tourist. “It’s good. It’s a different place. They warned us a lot about that going over there. I liked it. When you travel to those places with rugby teams – I’ve experienced it before – it’s not really as a tourist. It’s quite different, ‘cos you’re looked after so well. Awesome country. We had a few days off to go to cool places I’d never been to before. Top stuff, brilliant, I’d like to go back.”
South African rugby is plagued with scandalous problems. Questions remain about the bizarre, torturous World Cup boot camp “Kamp Staaldraad” for the Springboks. The commando training was so extreme that players were threatened with guns and denied food, sleep and clothing. An erstwhile Springbok great, the lock Schalk Burger, whose son Schalk was the most junior of the team, was outraged, telling South Africa’s Sunday Times. “I played Test matches, I was in the [apartheid era] army and I saw ghastly things, but I was never subjected to this sort of thing.
“We must stop this bullshit. This is what happens when you lose the ethos of the sport… You don’t motivate people with jackboot tactics and the proof is certainly in the World Cup pudding.”
The Hurricanes have sometimes been criticised for their supposedly “relaxed” approach to practise. One can’t help but think, watching this training session, and I’ve seen the Hurricanes play (and, occasionally, practise) as long as the Super 12’s been around, that the Hurricanes’ methods are effective.
Another lingering problem for South African rugby is reports of lingering Apartheid-style racism. There have been disgusting attempts in New Zealand recently to claim that race relations are a mess and to try and divide us; the Hurricanes are a telling testament to New Zealand’s splendid multi-cultural harmony. As Conrad says, there is genuine comradeship among this team.
Conrad says he felt a strong sense that South Africa (and its rugby) has problems that New Zealand (and its rugby) doesn’t: “You can tell that just from talking to the people over there. The whole culture, I don’t know what it is, just the attitudes of the people and stuff its just quite strange talking to them…You sort of get a sense that they’ve just been through so much I suppose…”
Conrad’s been playing the game as long as he can remember. He comes from a family with a strong rugby tradition. His uncle Allan played lock in Colin Meads’ All Black team. Allan, a farmer, has always mentored Conrad, particularly while the duo do farm work together.
There’s always been more than rugby on his horizons. “I played soccer and stuff when I was younger, my old man never cared. I played a lot of sports right through, I always enjoyed team sports a lot more. There’s something about it you can’t control which I quite liked. It’s [rugby] something I’ve just always enjoyed a bit more than other sports. Don’t really know what.”
Conrad highly recommends sport “it’s such a social part of my life.” But warns that, with injuries and the other vagaries of the system, it “is such a lottery.” Hence, his legal studies have always anchored his master plan.
If this “chance” hadn’t come along he’d probably be in the midst of sitting his professional legal exams. (He previously worked in commercial services for Bell Gully and still keeps in contact). Conrad’s ultimate aim is to be a police prosecutor: “I admire a lot of the work they do.”
The Hurricanes – even in their most disappointing seasons – have always been known for the flair with which they play the game. “Flair and flamboyance. The best thing is the coaches don’t try and tame it or anything…we play our natural game… that’s something we’re proud off.”
Since the days of the legendary prop-captain Bull Allen, Taranaki has provided the Hurricanes with a solid core of players. This year, even coach Colin Cooper hails from the Naki. “Great guy. I knew him from Taranaki.” Conrad also praises captains Jerry and Tana: “passionate about what they do, it just rubs off on you.”
Conrad sees his own style as an accurate team player who is inspired when he plays with better players; hence, he finds Super 12 easier than club rugby. “It gets easier… Good players, I like playing off them. That’s the way I’ve always felt.” Still, he says Super 12 means meticulous attention to detail. Work as scrupulous and painstaking as the tricksiest legal problems, no doubt.
In case you wondered, Conrad’s nickname “Snakey” evokes the image of the centre skillfully snaking through the middle of the opposition’s defence. Based on my chat with him, it would appear to make no prediction on his legal career.