ALL BLACK Conrad Smith believes Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll is "as good as it gets" at outside centre.
The Wellington Hurricane has often been referred to as 'The Professor' of the All Black three-quarter line, a part-time lawyer off the pitch and full-time problem on it.
Now a World Cup winner, Smith, 30, has made a 54-cap All Black career out of making the smart plays at the right time. He is to New Zealand what O'Driscoll is to Ireland - the brains trust.
"It's always enjoyable, regardless of Test matches, or franchise games, when you play centres you respect. It adds a little bit to the game," offered Smith.
"In saying that, rugby is a team game, so it's never a one-on-one duel. But, when you know the guy opposite you is a guy as good as Brian O'Driscoll, it then carries a little bit of weight into the game."
The Irish captain is still playing at the highest level at 33. At the same time, Smith is no spring chicken himself. There may even be a case for suggesting he sees a little of himself in O'Driscoll.
"I love how long he has played. I love the fact that he's supposedly not playing his best. He's been written off, but he always shows his class."
Typically, New Zealanders never pay too much attention to northern hemisphere rugby, especially when they are smack-bang in the middle of the Super-15 competition.
Even 'The Professor' has not noticed how O'Driscoll has rebounded from a career-threatening neck injury to play at a far better level than he did last season.
This could all count for nothing unless Ireland can actually secure good quality ball in the right areas of the field for O'Driscoll to activate those around him.
The quick feet still make the all-time great a slippery customer on the ball. Increasingly, however, it is how the Irish record caps and try holder brings others onto the ball that separates him.
Witness the succulent offload to Sean O'Brien for Cian Healy's five-pointer in the Heineken Cup final and instant change of direction and timing of the pass for Sean Cronin's try against the Ospreys in the PRO12 League final.
O'Driscoll is expert at drawing attention onto himself before slipping the ball to a better-placed runner. The All Blacks will be aware of his elasticity and finesse.
"I think in the position of centre if you can keep churning out as many years as he has you've got some quality about you and a bit of character, and that's what he has bucketloads of," added Smith.
The problem for O'Driscoll is the same as it has ever been against the All Blacks. He will probably have less ball than Smith, less time on it and less options off it.
That is the fickle hand of fate of every Irish player when it comes to New Zealand. There have been 23 defeats and one draw in 1973.
The secret is how to overcome it. It is something O'Driscoll is still trying to figure out and something Smith figures he won't be able to.