Nar­row wins for Fiji and Ge­or­gia

Sunday Star-Times - - ALL BLACKS V FRANCE - Aaron Smith

Some would call it a sac­ri­fice. Above and be­yond, and all that. But not Aaron Smith. For the cham­pion All Blacks half­back, ded­i­cat­ing his De­cem­ber to lay­ing down the best fit­ness base of his life was noth­ing other than a means to an end.

Smith is in the best phys­i­cal con­di­tion of his ca­reer and has been play­ing the house down for the High­landers. He was in­tent on trans­fer­ring that into the test arena with the All Blacks, start­ing with their June se­ries against France which be­gan in Auck­land last night.

You could say, af­ter a trou­bling pe­riod in 2016 when the whole house of cards threat­ened to come tum­bling down around some per­sonal in­dis­cre­tions, Smith has hit re­set on both his rugby and life­style, and the re­sults are ob­vi­ous. He says he’s still ‘‘work­ing on me’’ af­ter tak­ing a long, hard look in the mir­ror, but has clar­ity about where he’s go­ing and how to go get there.

Smith sat down with Stuff dur­ing the buildup to the French opener, and re­vealed him­self a changed man. He re­tains the chirpi­ness and in­ten­sity that is a defin­ing part of his char­ac­ter, but there’s a pur­pose about this fel­low now, and a sense of self-aware­ness that hasn’t al­ways been ev­i­dent.

Call it ma­tu­rity – he is 27 now, and last night was the All Blacks’ most ex­pe­ri­enced back, with 72 caps – or just call it a re­sult of life lessons learned, but Smith ap­pears in as good a spot as he has been for a long time.

He agrees. ‘‘I’ve changed a lot of things in my life,’’ he says. ‘‘A lot of pos­i­tive things have come from what’s hap­pened. I’m still work­ing on me, and it’s a day-to-day thing. But I’m re­ally clear in my head about where I’m go­ing and who I am, and kind of proud of who I am be­com­ing.

‘‘I’m still work­ing on that man, but I am in a good spot.’’

Which takes us back to De­cem­ber. It’s a month when All

Smith is used to work­ing hard on his game. At the team nam­ing press con­fer­ence in Auck­land he en­ter­tained a gag­gle of scribes with a tale of the train­ing reg­i­men he un­der­took as a young­ster, un­der his fa­ther’s watch­ful eye. It in­volved wheely bins, back­yard tar­gets and a nightly grind of prac­tis­ing till your arms hurt.

‘‘I al­ways had a ball in my hand as a kid . . . you’d play with it till it was pretty much smooth. The com­pet­i­tive streak he fed was pretty cool . . . I think he found it fun to see what I could and couldn’t do.’’

Smith has clearly learned to savour the big mo­ments in this game he plays for a liv­ing now.

‘‘There’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing thing at the end of next year . . . I’m get­ting to the part of my All Blacks ca­reer where I want to leave a good legacy, and I want to push my­self to see Europe-based stars Vereniki Goneva and Kini Murimuri­valu scored tries, each cre­ated by the other, as Fiji opened their Pa­cific Na­tions Cup rugby ti­tle de­fence yes­ter­day with a tense 24-22 win over Samoa.

Fiji led 24-3 be­fore Samoa scored three tries in a late rally which rocked the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons.

Ear­lier at Suva, Ge­or­gia beat Tonga 16-15, hold­ing on af­ter lead­ing 16-3.

La Rochelle’s Murimuri­valu scored Fiji’s first try from a pass by Goneva and New­cas­tle’s Goneva scored the team’s fourth and last try from an off­load by Murimuri­valu.

First five-eighth Ben Volavola scored a su­perb solo try but failed with the boot, kick­ing only two of five shots at goal.

Fiji’s largest con­cern be­fore fac­ing Ge­or­gia next week­end was dis­ci­pline. They had two play­ers, in­clud­ing cap­tain Aka­pusi Qera, sin­binned in the first half and an­other in the sec­ond as they came close to sur­ren­der­ing what had seemed an in­sur­mount­able lead.

‘‘We know dis­ci­pline let us down to­day,’’ Qera said. There were a lot of silly penal­ties, three yel­low cards and that’s not the stan­dard we are try­ing to set.’’

Samoa dom­i­nated the first and last quar­ters but had only a penalty to show for their early ef­forts and Fiji’s abil­ity to snatch try-scor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties sep­a­rated the teams.

Murimuri­valu scored the open­ing try from an in-pass from Goneva. Volavola sold a dummy and ran in un­touched from 30m for the sec­ond try and half­back Henry Se­niloli touched down to give Fiji a 17-3 lead at half­time.

Goneva scored at the start of the sec­ond half af­ter Murimuri­valu won the ball in the air and handed off to Goneva who was tack­led but not held near the goalline.

From 24-3 down, Samoa ral­lied with tries to Me­lani Matavao, Jack Lam and Dwayne Po­lataivao but fi­nally ran out of time.

Full­back Soso Ma­ti­ashvili scored all of his team’s points as Ge­or­gia beat a fast-fin­ish­ing Tonga 16-15.

Ma­ti­ashvili con­verted his own try in the sixth minute and kicked three penal­ties which gave Ge­or­gia a 13-3 lead at half­time

GETTY IMAGES

All Blacks half­back Aaron Smith is in ca­reer-best shape.

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