Scotland v New Zealand preview: Smith looks to lift curse of No 13

The Kiwi centre is far from soft, but his position has a troubled history. By Hugh Godwin
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The Independent Online

The world is beginning to wonder whether the All Blacks are a team without a weakness. Perhaps Scotland today will have better luck in finding one than Italy and Portugal in this World Cup to date.

The scrum and the line-out are worth a look but, in the Scots' search, and for the reason that history tells them so, they ought to look towards the favourites' centre. It is not that Conrad Smith is a soft touch; far from it, he may well be the world's best player in his position. It is just that the No 13 jersey carries more trouble for New Zealand than mere superstition when it comes to winning the Webb Ellis Cup.

There was 1999, when the bizarre selection at centre of one of the finest full-backs around, Christian Cullen, dogged Taine Randell's team through to the semi-finals, where France ran through and around them.

Then there was 2003, when the mighty Tana Umaga (shunted to the wing in '99) was set fair at centre in a try-laden back division until the No 13 curse struck again. Umaga tore knee ligaments in the opening match, missed the semi-final when his opposite number, Stirling Mortlock, ran in the decisive interception try for Australia, and the All Blacks were beaten again.

Umaga might at a pinch have made it through to the current bid to land that elusive first World Cup in 20 years, but the former captain retired from Tests after the 2005 Grand Slam tour. By then, in any case, he had taken to playing inside-centre for his province, Wellington, on occas-ion to accommodate the emerging Smith outside him. Umaga is now coaching in France with Toulon, and he visited his successor while the New Zealand squad were staying in Marseilles.

"Tana was good to me," says the 25-year-old Smith, who won his 10th cap last week against Portugal. "There was a year when he was keen to let me play in front of him, and he was more a coach and mentor."

Their playing styles could not be more contrasting: the All Blacks lost a lot of venom with the going of Umaga, even if Smith bears the nickname "Snake". ("I got it ages ago, playing cricket," he says. "It was just my fielding style, though every one expects a more elaborate story and a less innocent one").

There is certainly an, um, snake-hipped quality to Smith's classical outside breaks, but he is small at 14st 13lb, by modern standards. It could leave New Zealand vulnerable to more monstrous opponents, but it appears Graham Henry and his pals in the coaching brains trust like what they see in Smith's partnership with Dan Carter at 10 and Luke McAlister at 12. "A few people wrote me off, but the coaches were always good with me," Smith says. "They said they'd have me there if I got back, and that helps with the healing."

This is a reference to Smith's injury problems of the past two years, which have barely cleared up even now.

Henry, who has been laying World Cup plans since the year dot, was prepared to wait for Smith to get fit during a couple of August run-outs for his province, and picked him for the World Cup opener against Italy, only for Smith to drop out with a hamstring niggle.

Time is running out to bed him in or bite the bullet of a Plan B, C or D with Isaia Toeava, Mils Muliaina or Leon MacDonald.

"It's just great to have Conrad back," said the Kiwis' backs coach, Wayne Smith (no relation). "By his own admission he's probablyin the best form of his life, physically. Now it's his opportunity. He's had a long conditioning window and he's used it wisely."

Indeed so, as Smith, having qualified in law at Wellington's Victoria University in 2003, was called to the bar at the capital's high court in August 2006.

Smith scored two tries against the Portuguese, one of them with a pirouette to dismiss a tired opponent's tackle that annoyed some purists in the crowd, who gave Snake the bird. In fact, with his floppy hair and buck-toothed smile, he cuts a less obviously menacing figure than any other All Black. But Conrad Smith is also, as Scotland and othersdown the line may be about to find out, well equipped to end a long-running curse.

Watch Scotland take on the All Blacks on ITV1 this afternoon, kick-off 4pm