'Nugget' Smith set for a golden future
RUGBY NEW ZEALAND TOUR: THE POOR old Auckland Blues. Super champions in 1996 and ’97, when Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke headed a plethora of All Blacks galacticos, and winners again in 2003, the Blues currently sit bottom of the Super 15 table after a dozen defeats in 14 games to date and, it seems, any stick to beat them will do.
So it is with the emergence of Aaron Smith. The debutant two weeks ago and a try-scorer last Saturday, with his quick feet and laser gun pass, Smith has been hailed as the next Graeme Bachop by Steve Hansen and many others.
Yet two years ago, the Blues rejected him.
At 19, Smith, along with Aaron Cruden, began breaking into the Manawatu side, before starting all 13 of their games in 2009. Yet when Smith was included in the Blues’ wider training group for the 2010 Super 14 season, he did not see any game time and was not offered a contract.
Jamie Joseph had picked him for the Maoris in their centenary series last year, including the win over Ireland, and as head coach of Otago Highlanders, last year he happily brought Smith south to Dunedin.
As the back-up to Jimmy Cowan last year, Smith made three starts in his 12 appearances before displacing Cowan with a run of three tries in five games and has started all but one of the Highlanders’ last 13 games.
Akin to Conor Murray’s rapid rise, at the start of this season Smith was probably about seventh in the list of New Zealand scrumhalves but Hansen and backs coach Ian Foster reckoned Smith’s skills were just what they wanted behind their pack; a crisp passing halfback to unleash a wide range of attacking talent.
To compound the Blues’ sense of opportunity lost, Smith made his Test debut at Eden Park. Admittedly given an armchair ride, he looked to the manner born, and it would be no surprise if he goes on to become an All Black legend.
Quick, with a real running threat, and enough strength to score from close in, he has a good kicking game and his passing is the product of hours spent passing through a dustbin in the family driveway at home in Fielding. His talent has always stood out.
Jason O’Halloran, now the Manawatu head coach, was working with the province’s academy in late 2007 when he first caught side of the diminutive Maori. “My first impressions were that Aaron had an unbelievable skill-set,” says O’Halloran, a one-Test All Blacks centre and now the Manawatu head coach.