'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.
“From the first time I saw him he was an amazing distributor and he was also very agile in his ability to move laterally and step. But it is his passing technique that is very unique because he almost squeezes the ball out between his thumb and forefinger.”
At Fielding High School as a team-mate of All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock, for all his passing, speed and natural skills, Smith’s defence needed work.
“He probably used to underestimate the importance of that role a little bit and initially thought his job was just to distribute the ball,” says O’Halloran. “His defence would be questioned three or four years ago but now he knows he has to go low and hang on for grim death. He has developed into a tough little guy.”
Smith is possibly the first All Black to have worked as an apprentice hairdresser which, along with his size and his position, ensures he has to stand up for himself.
“If you are a rugby player-slash-hairdresser it pays to have the gift of the gab – and he can fire back pretty quickly,” says O’Halloran. “He is a great character, that is for sure.”
One of his former coaches at Fielding High School, Rick Francis noted: “He wasn’t that big, probably just a bit bigger than 70kg, but he had the huge advantage in that he was able to pass so well off both hands. He was a very sparky personality. He was a typical halfback, cheeky, and he used to get a bit of flea in the ear now and again to help bring him back in line.”
It was at Fielding Yellows Club where Smith earned the moniker “Nugget”. In a time of increasingly bigger players, even at scru-half, Smith is something of a throwback to a bygone era, given the emergence of Mike Phillips, Murray and others. Smith is listed at 171 cm (5ft 7in) and 82 kg (12 st 13 lb) but off the pitch those measurements look generous.
“Right at the beginning of the Super 15, after three or four games, if he could cope with the physicality – and he showed us he could – he had the game to play Test rugby,” Hansen said. “He was just a bit of a freak in that area (passing) and we haven’t had one like that since Graeme Bachop.”
If he turns out to be that good, the All Blacks have indeed unearthed a nugget of gold.