All Black Ben Smith on his family's rocky year

The All Blacks' vice-captain has had a year of ups and downs.

By Kelly Bertrand
Katie Smith knew something was wrong the minute she glanced down at her phone and saw how many messages she had missed from worried friends and family.
Heavily pregnant with her second child with All Black vice-captain husband Ben, Katie was attending a friend’s wedding solo in Alexandra while Ben played a warm-up match for his Super Rugby team, the Highlanders, in February this year. Ben had to be helped off the field after a collision.
“I’d had quite a bad knock,“ Ben (31) says, smiling wryly.
In fact, his concussion was so severe at that stage, he had forgotten his wife was pregnant, let alone 37 weeks along. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like hearing it again for the first time!"
“He goes, ’What are we going to do with two?’“ recalls Katie, shaking her head. “I said, ‘Mate, we haven’t got long to figure it out!’“
Suffice to say, it’s been an interesting year for the Smith family.
“It’s been a bit rough at times," admits Katie (31) – with injuries, overseas playing offers, sabbaticals and, of course, the arrival of their son Walter Arnold Douglas Smith.
Just two weeks after his father’s concussion, Walter, or Waltman as he’s more commonly known, was born, a little brother for their daughter Annabelle (2).
“We had a planned Caesarean with Walt," explains Katie, as she bounces her bonny boy on her knee while, at the same time, trying to pin Annabelle’s blonde curls back into place.
“It was hell with Annabelle – we ended up needing an emergency C-section because of the way she was sitting and Walt was sitting the same way. The only thing I knew was that I wasn’t going down that path again! It was pretty straightforward this time.“
The fact Walter was a boy was a complete surprise to Ben and Katie, who chose not to find out the gender, but they were both thrilled.
Throughout Katie’s pregnancy, Ben was adamant on the name Walter if the baby was a boy. While Katie had liked the name years ago, she’d gone right off it – until she met her son. They then settled on their grandfather’s monikers, Arnold and Douglas, for his middle names.
Seven months on, Walter, a remarkably smiley and content wee lad, is proving to be the light of Ben, Katie and Annabelle’s lives.
Settling down on the lounge floor for our interview at Annabelle’s insistence – she’s crafted a picnic of three rice crackers, a pot of yoghurt and a couple of raisins for everyone to share on top of one of Walt’s baby blankets – Ben and Katie can’t quite believe how much life has changed since they welcomed their son in March.
“He’s so happy and chilled out – until he’s not,“ laughs Ben. “He’s definitely an easier baby than Annabelle was. We get a lot more smiles from him than we did with Bels.“
“Walt is smiley, Annabelle is sassy,“ Katie nods, and as if on cue, Annabelle walks past, patting her dad on the head as she says, “Hello, Ben!“ before plopping herself down in the middle of the blanket.
“Hello, Annabelle!“ Ben replies, stifling a laugh. “She’s just learning we have names other than Mum and Dad.“
“She’s very, very good with Wally,“ a proud Katie tells.
“She just loves him and now he’s getting a little older, he’s becoming a bit more interactive, so she really likes that.“
“And she’ll try and include him in everything,“ tells Ben. “When she leaves for daycare, she’ll go, ’Don’t worry, Wally. I come back for you!’“
While it’s an organised kind of permanent chaos in the Smith household – toys, clothes and almost every kind of ball imaginable dominate the scene – there has been one unexpected upside of a turbulent year.
Ben’s been able to be at home more than his rugby commitments would usually allow, following two concussions and an inner ear issue, which left him sidelined from both the All Blacks and the Highlanders for weeks.
“It’s been a frustrating year, but at least being able to spend time with Katie and the kids has been a silver lining,“ he nods.
Ben’s injury troubles, which started in February, continued throughout the rest of 2017, with another concussion worry and what is best described as severe vertigo.
“I had head spins – it felt like I was on a boat for a week and a half,“ he tells. “It might have been caused by the concussions, but they’re not too sure.“
And with each head knock, Katie, understandably, was becoming more worried. “It was definitely a stressful time,“ she says. “It makes you feel a bit sick when you see it happen.“
Weeks away from the game were tough, Ben admits – and though he is now fully recovered, he still opted to take a sabbatical from the All Blacks in the second half of this year.
“He took the time away thinking he’d be knackered, like you usually are around August with all the travel and stuff, and when the time came, he felt great because he hadn’t played much,“ explains Katie.
“It was good and bad timing,“ admits Ben. “Still, it was a good to give everything a chance to calm down – but taking the time had nothing to do with the injuries or anything, I just wanted to spend some more time with the family. But it was weird watching the team from home!“
According to Katie, Annabelle was a bit confused as to why Dad wasn’t with “his friends“ when she saw the All Blacks on the TV.
“She didn’t understand, she kept pointing and saying, ‘Daddy’s friends?’ when they came on,“ she laughs.
“Though, if anyone on TV looks like they play sport, she’ll think they’re my friends,“ adds Ben.
“But the other night, we were sitting on the couch while the rugby was on and I could see her thinking really hard about something. And then she goes, ’Daddy, sit here and watch the rugby,’ and points to the other couch and says, ’Mummy, go over there and do washing!’“
he tells with a laugh, earning a derisive glare from Katie.
“Story of my life!“ she says, shaking her head. Staying with the boys in black proved too much of a temptation for Ben, who had to make a tough decision between recommitting to New Zealand Rugby or taking up a lucrative offer to play in France.
However, the idea of uprooting the family to the other side of the world was too much for the star fullback.
“Maybe having Walter, in a way, helped make the decision,“ he says.
“It was always going to be good to be around family and I just think we feel like we’re pretty set up here. I think there’s more to achieve by staying.“
However, Ben and Katie were keen to use the time gifted to them by the sabbatical to do a little jet-setting themselves.
Leaving the kids with their grandparents, the couple, who have been together since first laying eyes on each other as 15-year-olds in Dunedin, took their first big overseas trip together, visiting New York, San Francisco and Denver, and they’re about to head to Noosa with the kids for a family holiday.
And, of course, Ben is itching to get back on the field – although carefully.
“Hopefully, 2018 will be concussion-free!“ he laughs.

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