Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make all the difference. Parramatta back-rower Ben Smith readily admits that his best football remains some time off in 2013, but for a guy who played only eight games last season and can only train a few times a week, just being back on the footy field is reward enough.
The veteran forward endured a torrid 2012, damaging his pec muscle in a pre-season trial against Penrith then suffering a season-ending shoulder injury just eight games into his return.
“So for me, the most important thing is just being out there playing football again,” he told NRL.com in the wake of last Friday’s underwhelming performance against Wests Tigers.
“Last year was very, very frustrating. To tear my pec then come back, play seven or eight games and then need a shoulder reconstruction was very frustrating and very disappointing.
“But the worst thing for me was that I had to take that into the pre-season with the new coach and new coaching staff.
“It wasn’t until January that I was able to do the contact work so I think I was a bit behind. It has taken me a while to get back up that hill but I’m feeling really good. I’ve just got to keep ripping in and working.”
While there is no doubt that the likes of Jarryd Hayne and Chris Sandow hold much of Parramatta’s fortunes this season in their hands, Smith has quickly become a favourite of new coach Ricky Stuart who has marvelled at the impact the 28-year-old has had around the place since recovering from his shoulder injury in the pre-season.
When NRL.com spoke with Stuart shortly before their Round 1 clash with the Warriors, he singled Smith out for special praise – revealing that his body no longer allowed him to complete all of the side’s field work but that the intensity inevitable lifted when he did.
“I have a bit of a chronic injury on my knee,” Smith explained when asked. “There are a few of us in the older crew who sort of have day-on, day-off. You just try and rip in when you have the opportunity and you’ve just got to work hard. You’ve got 35 blokes that want to play NRL, so you’ve just got to rip in when you can.
“You’ve got to try and make sure you’re ready on game day and that’s what it’s all about for me. I can’t train all the time but it’s just about making sure you’re ready to play on the weekend.”
Smith said that he had also set himself the goal to provide greater leadership this season given that he is now the club’s longest-serving current player following the retirement of Eels greats Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt.
“It’s been weird going to the circle and not having them there but we’ve still got a lot of experience here,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call it a leadership group but there are seven or eight of us that fill that role and we’ve got guys that have won competitions and played for Australia. Hopefully we can lead the way this year and that’s our main focus but obviously you need those guys on the park to do that.
“We had a lot of guys other than myself injured last year – Haynesy and Willie Tonga barely played at all and you want those guys out there. You need them on the park. That’s why it’s so good to be back and to be able to help the boys out.”
While Friday’s night’s 31-18 loss to the Tigers proved a huge letdown following encouraging performances against the Warriors and Bulldogs in the opening two rounds, Smith said he was confident that Parramatta was on the right track in 2013.
“After the positives that we took out of the Canterbury game, to come out on Friday night and let those simple tries in was very disappointing,” he said. “But in general I think that as a team we’re performing a lot better this year.
“We’re going forward and there is a lot more confidence within the team. I think our key players in our key positions are taking control a bit more. Chris Sandow has played unbelievable football the first three rounds and as a team we gain a lot of confidence out of that.
“It’s all a work in progress but we know that as a team we’re a lot better than how we performed on Friday night. These things happen. We’ve got a week to turn it around and put in an 80-minute performance.”
If anything, last week’s loss to the Tigers has raised further questions about just how much Stuart can eke out of this current squad in 2013 but they have an opportunity to answer a few of those next Monday night when they face a Roosters outfit that has enjoyed consecutive wins.
“The Roosters have got some quality players, they’ve bought well and they are going to be a strong team but for us as a team we need to not worry about our opposition and focus on where we need to improve,” Smith said, pointing to Sonny Bill Williams as an example.
“There are 17 blokes out there and if you start worrying about one person, the next bloke will get under the radar. He is a quality player and he is going well for a guy that didn’t play until Round 1 but they’ve got a lot of strike power and a lot of good players. For us it’s concentrating on the team and what we need to work on.”