England v New Zealand
Ben Smith: From 'gappie' at Colston's to world star
November 12, 2013
Then and now: Ben Smith during his days as an Old Colstonian and an All Black © Getty Images/ Colstons
When Ben Smith takes to the Twickenham field on Saturday for the All Blacks, there will be a group of his old team-mates in the crowd. Not from Otago, nor even from New Zealand, but from a school in Bristol.
Colston's, one of the south west's best rugby schools. England's Olly Barkley, Shane Geraghty, Tom Varndell, Lee Mears and Duncan Bell all learned their trade at the day school in Stapleton. In 2005, Colston's welcomed a teenager who had just finished his education at King's High School in Dunedin.
His coach in Dunedin was Darryl Paterson, who then journeyed to Colston's in 2002. Smith ran out for King's 1st XV, but in the words of Paterson, "he was a very good player but certainly no superstar. For a guy who has become an All Black winger he didn't even run in school sprint competitions". Smith is currently switching between outside centre and the flank for the All Blacks but back then he was lining up at half-back.
In 2004, Smith captained the King's 1st XV and played at fly-half and like plenty of 18-year-old students, when he finished his school studies, embarked on a gap year. He opted to journey to Colston's and lived with Paterson and his family in the school house. Alongside his duties for the school as a teaching assistant, he ran out for the Old Colstonians.
For Old Colstonian Matt Leek, two memories spring to mind. "'Bin, as his name was pronounced by the boys at the rugby, was a firm favourite. We went on tour to Bognor. We were supposed to be playing their 3s but due to an administrative error we ended facing most of their first team. Most of our squad were more than a little worse for wear but Smithy took them on single-handed and we were somehow winning at half time -albeit we went on to lose the game.
Scoring tries has become a habit for Ben Smith © Getty Images
"Then there was a cup game against Newbury Stags, who were definitely two leagues above us, but it could have been three. I can't remember all the details but again Smithy rose to the occasion and did his best to beat them on his own. We ended up drawing the game 34-34 but went out as we were the home side. Oh, the injustice of it all."
For Paterson, another memory of Smith's time at Colston's is still fresh in the memory. "He was very good but he didn't tear teams apart, in fact the guys from there still rib him about a local cup final against Frampton Cotterell where he missed a number of easy shots at goal. His goal kicking for Otago was never much better."
It is testament to Smith's drive and ambition that he has gone from 'gappie' at Colston's to world star. He is the school's only All Black and a photograph hangs of him in the clubroom. For Paterson, Smith's experience at the school "had a major influence on his career".
After his time at Colston's, Smith returned to Otago and played for his beloved Green Island. When Paterson returned to Dunedin in 2007 he tried to persuade Smith to join the Southern Club but "true to form in his well mannered way he politely declined and wanted to stick with his local club which is about a long iron shot away from his parents' place."
A couple of years on and in 2008 Smith was picked for Otago and in 2009, the Highlanders came calling. An All Blacks debut followed and now, he is the form back in world rugby after crossing for eight tries in the recent Rugby Championship.
But a school of 802 students can feel proud at the role they had in getting Smith to where he is now. As Leek remembers, "Ben was an all round good egg who no one has a bad word to say about".
Paterson still catches up with Smith on a regular basis and puts his current status down to hard work. "I still find it hard to believe how good he has become and at present probably one of the form players in the world but he has always taken time at whatever level to realise how good he could be."
From Colston's to being one of the best players in the world in eight years, it has been a rapid rise for Ben Smith.
Getting the all-important try © Colstons
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.