Cape Town - New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen have paid tribute to fullback Ben Smith, who will leave the country at the end of the 2019 season.
The 32-year-old, who has played 76 Tests for the All Blacks and 144 games for the Highlanders, has signed a contract with French club Pau and will leave New Zealand following what is expected to be his swansong, at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
"Ben has been an incredibly loyal servant of the game and we look forward to enjoying the 2019 season with him. On behalf of New Zealand Rugby, I want to thank him for everything he has done for game. The way he plays is an inspiration to New Zealanders and fans around the world - Green Island, Dunedin and New Zealand can be incredibly proud of him,” Tew told the Highlanders’ official website.
Hansen added: "Ben will leave New Zealand with the very best wishes of everyone involved in the All Blacks. He’s a special person and an outstanding rugby player who has always given - and will continue to give - 100 percent to the All Blacks jersey.
"He has been a key member of the All Blacks leadership group for many years and captained the team against Samoa last year. We’ll get to thank Ben, his wife Katie and his family personally for his contribution to New Zealand Rugby next year, when the All Blacks season resumes, but for now we want to congratulate him on everything he has achieved."
Smith also commented: "I’m excited about the opportunities that may present themselves in the future, but I also realise that my playing time with Otago, the Highlanders and the All Blacks now has an end point.
"In your heart you want to play forever, but in your head you know that’s not possible. In the playing time I have remaining, I’m pretty keen to experience a fresh, new challenge. I think it will be good to be involved in a new environment and a foreign culture for a while, I’m sure it will be a bit of an adventure for both myself and my family.
"Dunedin will always be where I call home and I’m one short of playing my 50th game for the 'Grizzlies' so I still have a little unfinished business here yet."