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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Five Minutes With: Conrad Smith

Since his debut almost a decade ago, Conrad Smith has established himself as indisputably the finest centre in world rugby. Although most famous for his achievements in the All Blacks’ number-13 jersey, Smith is also a graduate of Victoria’s Law School. Recognised alongside the likes of John Campbell and Georgina te Heuheu in Victoria’s Distinguished Alumni Awards late last month, he is the inaugural recipient of the Young Alumnus award. He spoke to Salient about his university years and life after rugby.


Salient: Congratulations on your recent Victoria Distinguished Alumni Award. How does it feel to get awards off the field rather than on it?

Conrad Smith: That award in particular was pretty humbling to be honest, especially considering the other recipients and what they had done. I was obviously different—they did differentiate me by calling me the ‘Young Alumni’, which I felt more comfortable with, compared to those guys, who have forged some pretty impressive careers. It is great, and like you say, it’s something outside of rugby. I feel lucky for the fact that I was able to study and do something outside of rugby, so to get recognised for that is pretty awesome.

S: Was it difficult to balance your study with rugby?

C: To be honest, it wasn’t too hard for me because I wasn’t getting selected in age-group sides and it was only really in my last semester that I made the Lions and was sort-of playing first-class rugby. That’s where I did find it tough. Up until then, I’d only play club rugby and rep teams, so I wasn’t expected to be training three or four days a week like guys in academies now. I think that made it a lot easier for me, and that’s why I say it’s lucky, it wasn’t by design—it was good fortune, if anything.

S: So you didn’t have to sacrifice too much of the social side of university, then?

C: Nah, not at all. I’m pretty fortunate for the fact that I was a full-time student for four years, and some of my favourite memories of the past have been of that whole flatting experience. You look back on it and there’s plenty of laughs, and you form plenty of friendships in that time as well.

S: In terms of the guys you’re playing with these days, is it quite rare for them to be qualified or have a university degree?

C: Very rare. Some of the guys can study—the thing is that plenty of them are smart enough to do it, but you just don’t have the time obviously—when the guys are getting picked in the academies and age-group sides—to be students. And never full-time students like I was. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I don’t think you’ll see any in the years to come, it’s just too hard; rugby doesn’t really allow it, the way it’s going, and I can’t see it changing.

S: Does that mean that you’re looked up to as the intellectual in those groups?

C: [laughs] I think it does a bit, but like I say, I don’t think I’m smarter than any rugby players—it was just the way things panned out for me in that I didn’t make many sides and so I was able to study. There’s a few of them probably smarter than me who are playing the game now, but they’re just a victim of the way rugby is played these days in that they don’t get the opportunity to study like I did.

S: In terms of developing players, not just as players but as people—is that a shortcoming of the system now, that you don’t have the ability to round yourself if you want to be at the top?

C: I think it is, but the good thing is that rugby is aware of that, and it does a lot more compared to other sports to try to make up for that. I don’t think they’ll fully be able to substitute life as a student, but they’ve gone a long way. I think what the players’ association is doing: trying to give guys free time, particularly the young ones, before they’ve made Super Rugby and whatnot, is really good. Giving them time to do meaningful study or work experience; I think it’s really good.

S: So you’re taking a sabbatical at the end of this year?

C: Just at the end of the Rugby Championship, I’ll be travelling and doing a bit of stuff—just giving myself a break, which I’m quite looking forward to.

S: Will that be your first major break since your debut?

C: Missing the end-of-year tour will be the first tour I’ve missed since ‘04, when I debuted on the end-of-year tour—other than when I broke my leg in ‘06. That’s the only other time I haven’t been with the guys. It will be different.

S: It’s interesting that you’re choosing to travel in your time off—you don’t get enough of that during the day-to-day tours?

C: It’s a totally different experience, you know. Travelling with a rugby team is not really travel, to be honest. You get to see the inside of a hotel and you only get sort-of one day, if you’re lucky, or a day-and-a-half to look around. I was lucky after the World Cup, my partner and I travelled. To actually go out and fend for yourself, and do what normal people do when they go on holiday—it’s something I feel I’ve missed because of the rugby, so I’m taking these opportunities to do it.

S: In the future, when your rugby’s winding up a bit, do you think you’ll go back to your Law degree and look for a job in the legal profession?

C: Yeah, I’d love to. I obviously worked pretty hard at it to get the degree, so that’s the plan anyway. I don’t know what shape or form it will be, but I’m pretty excited about life after rugby. I know it scares some rugby guys, because they don’t know what else they can do, but for me I feel like there’s a lot of good options. I don’t really know where I’ll end up to be honest, but it’s something I am looking forward to one day.

S: Any advice for students who are in the position you were in back in early 2000s, trying to make it into those top teams, and trying to study and get the grades?

C: I obviously speak to a few of the guys studying—we’ve got a couple in my club side at the moment—I always just encourage them to keep yourselves busy and study. Obviously, it’s a difficult balance, but the more you can do, I think it actually helps your rugby. I think it takes a lot of pressure off when you’re playing rugby, and you can treat it as a game and not your life. Then if it doesn’t work out, you’ve got something to fall back on. I think it’s really important for those sides that have the opportunity to stick with the study and do it for as long as you can.

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