29 Aaron Smith [2012-] CAPS 62
For a long period in the professional game, the All Blacks – New Zealand Super Rugby teams as well – weren’t interested in picking small, passing halfbacks.
There was a feeling they were yesterday’s player – too small to e ectively defend around the fringes of the ruck and not able to act as a fourth loose forward.
Then in 2012 two things happened: Steve Hansen was made coach of the All Blacks and Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph was prepared to take a punt on Aaron Smith.
It was a big call because Smith didn’t fit the mould of modern thinking. He is 1.71m and barely 80kg. Smith is small.
But Smith is supremely gifted and he can pass. Really pass. And he can get around the park and he can step and kick.
Joseph didn’t care that Smith was small and he built an attacking gameplan that was all about fast ruck ball and Smith using his speed of movement and speed of pass to up the tempo.
By the end of the 2012 Super Rugby season, it was impossible not to notice the contribution of Smith. Impossible not to see how well he passed and how much opportunity he provided the Highlanders by doing so.
As he said “If you’re not going to be the biggest player you must have a point of di erence. [My father] always said halfbacks have to be able to pass. That was the thing he really drilled into me. That was the main thing that stuck with me when I was younger and all the times I practised.
“For me it was about using what I had. Being smaller and leaner I could be faster and fitter. I could always back my pass to be the most consistent thing in my game.”
Hansen knew straight away that he wanted Smith as his first choice halfback. He could see that the risks of playing such a small halfback were far less than the rewards.
Smith gives the All Blacks the same advantages as he does the Highlanders, and the little man has become an integral part of the All Blacks machinery.
With Smith in the No 9 jersey, the All Blacks are looking to play at pace. They tend to push the ball wide early because Smith allows them to do that.
He buys players time and space by being so sharp and accurate in what he does. And it is the pace and width of the All Blacks’ attack that has enabled them to win so many tests since 2012. It is the influence of Smith that has been critical in allowing that pattern to form.
“He’s developed into a very special halfback and become a very important part of our team,” says Hansen. “His style of game suits what we are trying to do. He’s worked really hard at understanding the game and helping to drive that.
“When he’s calm, controlled and clear he’s one of, if not the, best halfbacks in the world. It’s nice to see him grow into the player he has.”
Not only has Smith had a huge influence on the speed and width which the All Blacks can play, he’s also paved the way for other small halfbacks to be picked.
Since he proved his worth on the biggest stage, a number of smaller halfbacks have entered the professional fray. Coaches are more willing at all levels to embrace passing halfbacks and not worry so much about their ability to knock over forwards or punch holes around the fringes.
Smith has changed the thinking from big is best to selectors getting back to evaluating the core role of the halfback and realising that it is passing the ball.
WHEN HE’S CALM, CONTROLLED AND CLEAR HE’S ONE OF, IF NOT THE, BEST HALFBACKS IN THE WORLD.’ STEVE HANSEN