Narrow wins for Fiji and Georgia
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
All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith is in career-best shape.