Off the field, rugby legend Conrad Smith is making a new name for himself as a charity king, helping improve children’s lives.
He had a stellar career that saw him on the winning team of two Rugby World Cups, but now Conrad Smith is switching codes and is set to embark on his next big challenge. And this time, he’s not doing it for a shiny gold trophy – but to save lives.
The former All Black is competing in the Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge, which is a surprise even to him, because he is supposed to be living overseas, but instead he and his family have returned to New Zealand.
Due to the pandemic, Conrad, 40, and his wife Lee-Anne Snowdon, 36, moved their family back home to New Plymouth earlier this year after five years in the mountainous province of Béarn in the South of France.
The Taranaki-raised dad-of-two never expected to be back in Aotearoa, let alone donning Lycra and cycling a hundred kilometres a week to train for the race, but both were for a good reason.
He will be riding the 160km challenge – which is planned for November 27, but if it can’t go ahead on that date due to Covid restrictions, there is a reserve date of February 19 – to support the charity So They Can, which was set up to ensure children receive a quality education, nutritious meals and medical care in East Africa.
After first becoming an ambassador for the charity 12 years ago, both Conrad and Lee-Anne are devoted to So They Can, which supports 42 schools in the region. The organisation not only ensures children get educated but also works to help vulnerable children, to empower women to create businesses and to make sure children in school are healthy.
Conrad first met the charity’s founder, Wanaka-based former lawyer and mother-of-four Cassandra Treadwell, in 2010, when she was just working out how to help children and women in Kenya get access to education.
He was so impressed with her vision that he and Lee-Anne travelled to a Kenyan refugee camp in 2011, and saw first-hand the work that needed to be done.
“That first trip to Kenya changed our lives,” Conrad says. “You hear stories of people living in poverty and even see images on TV, but to actually meet the families, walk into their tents and see how little they live with, it makes you question your own priorities and made us determined to help.
“It was the education focus that we related to. When you go over there and see the extreme poverty, and realise that 100 million children are not in school, you can feel helpless. As a Westerner, you want to help but the problem is so enormous. The reason we were drawn to it was that this charity was empowering the people to support themselves. We don’t have the answers, but we can provide aid for them to find the answers and that’s the focus.”
When they returned two years later, the couple could not believe how much progress had been made. On their first visit, one classroom had been built. Now, there were three classrooms and a children’s village, as well as teacher training and the charity was a big part of the community.
“Once you see what is going on over there, you can’t forget those things and we’re attached to it for life now,” says Conrad.
He's cycling 100km a week to train for the challenge. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
The big-hearted rugby centre, who missed a test match in Sydney to be at the birth of his first child Luca, now seven, had intended to help So They Can while in France by attracting international donors, but it was challenging.
So when he returned home, he decided to enter in the cycle race to raise awareness for
“Where we lived in France, the Tour de France came through every year and there was a lot of great cycling close by, so when I stopped playing rugby, cycling became my sport of choice,” he explains. “I did a couple of events over there.”
The Taupō challenge is New Zealand’s biggest cycle race and, “all my brothers have done it”, says Conrad, who has been training with his older brother Nathan, a paralympic cyclist. “My dad cycles a lot, too, so there’s been a fair bit of training going on.”
In Béarn, Conrad had played rugby for the Pau team and later, after hanging up his boots for good, he stayed on to coach. Without the Covid pandemic, the family would still be enjoying life in the French Pyrenees.
“We definitely came back to New Zealand sooner than we planned,” admits Conrad. “We would have happily stayed for a couple more years, but when Covid arrived, it just wasn’t the same.”
In addition to son Luca, the couple welcomed daughter Amélie four years ago, and the family was frequently treated to visits from family and friends. They also travelled back home once a year for the Kiwi summer.
“Even though we were on the other side of the world, travel was so easy and my mum and dad would come over and stay for a month. They said they saw more of me in France than they did when I was living in Wellington,” laughs Lee-Anne. “The quality of the time we spent with our families was really special because they would stay with us and we’d get to really enjoy being with them.
Smith is supporting the charity So They Can, to give kids in East Africa quality education, nutritious meals and medical care. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
“We stuck out Covid in France for eight months. We had never been homesick before, but suddenly no one came to see us.”
The family left France as it was entering its second lockdown at the end of last year, originally intending to spend three months in NZ.
“We only came back with a few suitcases, so all our furniture and belongings were still in our house,” says Conrad. “But once we got here, we realised that things were not getting any better back in France. People in New Zealand think they are doing it tough and I understand that – especially for Aucklanders – but in France that second lockdown went on the whole winter and people were wearing masks everywhere.
“When Luca went to school wearing a mask all day before we left, it didn’t feel right.”
In the end, he says, it was nice to return to New Plymouth, where both he and Lee-Anne grew up and where they would be surrounded by family. “We’re both from big families – I have three siblings and Lee has five.”
Another factor in the couple’s decision to move home was a business they
had bought, Down to Earth, an organic whole-food shop Lee-Anne co-owns and manages with her childhood pal Lisa Deken.
“We had bought the business while we were in France during lockdown, so when we decided to stay in New Zealand and settle in New Plymouth, it meant Lee could get into the shop and work there,” says Conrad.
Lee-Anne, a graduate in health science with a focus on nutrition, adds: “The shop has been going for 40 years and I always used to shop there. I’ve always loved the idea of owning a holistic health hub because my background is in health and wellbeing. It’s a pretty cool industry to be in.”
Smith helped lead the All Blacks to two Rugby World Cup wins. Photo / Supplied
Among the goodies on her shelves is the Essence of Humanity skincare range, which is 100% social enterprise-based and gives all profits to So They Can.
Lee-Anne admits she was ready to get back to work after being at home with the kids in France, and now Conrad is doing the school run and cooking dinner.
“I really liked cooking in the downtime when I was playing rugby,” says Conrad. “But cooking for the kids is slightly different because you have to do it quickly!”
Now that Conrad has left his coaching job in France, he works online as a player advocate for the International Rugby Players Association, which means he speaks on behalf of players when it comes to tournaments like the Sevens or Fifteens.
It helps that he’s a lawyer with the skills to wade through the massive paperwork involved in signing up players. And because most of the sportspeople are in Europe, he works at night.
“I can be around a lot more for the kids while Lee-Anne is working,” says Conrad. “It’s been a change of lifestyle for us and it’s taken a bit of adjustment, but it has all worked out.”
Looking for ways to get involved?
1. Put on your Lycra and join Conrad’s team in the Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge. Visit cyclechallenge21.grassrootz.com/so-they-can
2. Sponsor Conrad and change the future for girls. Visit cyclechallenge21.grassrootz.com/so-they-can/conrad
3. Sponsor a student and provide access to life essentials such as a quality education, food, clean drinking water and sanitation. Visit sotheycan.org/sponsor/sponsor-a-student
4. Join Luke Mangan and Neil Finn for a virtual cooking lesson, live performance and Global Dinner on November 20, 2021. Visit https://www.sotheycan.org/globaldinner
5. Challenge yourself to move 85km during March 2022 to support vulnerable girls. Visit 1humanrace.raisely.com