The two sides of Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith played his finest game at Al­bany but off-field, the jury is still out

The New Zealand Herald - - FRONT PAGE - Gre­gor Paul More rugby, B8-11

What a co­nun­drum Aaron Smith has be­come; so easy to ad­mire for his work on the field, so easy to judge for what he has done off it.

He is an in­creas­ingly strong and bril­liant de­ci­sion-maker when he wears No 9, and yet he has a track his­tory that says he’s prone to sus­pect choices when he’s dressed to the nines.

Smith has be­come like no other All Black of re­cent times in forc­ing such a split eval­u­a­tion of him­self as a pro­fes­sional and as a per­son.

On one front, he ex­cels, and on the other, he may never re­store his rep­u­ta­tion with a na­tion that wants to be for­giv­ing of him but hasn’t been given much with which to work.

His per­for­mance at Al­bany was quite bril­liant. Maybe even his best for the All Blacks.

There was such author­ity and com­po­sure about not only the way he played, but the way he di­rected the All Blacks.

A few years ago, he was pre­dom­i­nantly all about his speed of pass and abil­ity to get to break­downs. What’s hap­pened in re­cent times is that he’s de­vel­oped mul­ti­ple as­pects to his game.

He re­mains, es­sen­tially, a pass-an­drun half­back. That’s still his bread and but­ter­ing. He still has no peer in his abil­ity to clear the ball quickly. No one in world rugby can pass as well as he does.

Maybe it is un­fair to com­pare, but the All Blacks looked a dif­fer­ent team in Al­bany with Smith at half­back than they did with TJ Per­e­nara there.

Un­fair per­haps be­cause in New Ply­mouth, where Per­e­nara started, he was be­hind a pack that was strug­gling at the break­down and not able to de­liver that quick-re­lease pos­ses­sion.

Still, fair or un­fair, it’s clear Smith has re-es­tab­lished day­light be­tween him­self and Per­e­nara.

The All Blacks are a bet­ter team when Smith starts than when Per­e­nara does.

And it’s not just the speed of clear­ance and de­liv­ery ei­ther. Smith reads the game so well now.

He took a risk early in the game against South Africa by tap­ping a kick­able penalty.

It’s never easy to be­lieve it is the right thing to do, but he jus­ti­fied it by cre­at­ing a try for Rieko Ioane with an in­cred­i­bly deft kick off his left foot.

What im­pressed more, how­ever, was Smith’s ex­pla­na­tion of why he did it. He said he felt the All Blacks needed to get some­thing go­ing, that they needed a mo­ment to set­tle them and spark them.

It was an as­tute ob­ser­va­tion and one that demon­strated his abil­ity these days to in­ter­pret the mood of the team, the flow of the game and what needs to be done.

There were lit­tle touches from him all night that demon­strated the com­mand he has now and the dots have to be con­nected to sug­gest that one of the ma­jor rea­sons Beau­den Bar­rett im­proved out of sight against the Boks was that he had Smith back as his half­back part­ner.

Smith bought Bar­rett time, took some of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing pres­sure off him and did more to gen­er­ate the sort of at­tack­ing tempo the All Blacks were af­ter.

If it was Smith’s finest night as an All Black, the per­for­mance it would be trump­ing would be the one he gave in the cor­re­spond­ing fix­ture last year.

Against the Boks in Christchurch Mon­day, Septem­bSeptem­ber 18, 2017

One of the ma­jor rea­sons Beau­den Bar­rett im­proved out of sight against the Boks was that he had Smith back as his half­back part­ner.

2016, Smith was equally mag­nif­i­cent. But it was the day af­ter that per­for­mance in Christchurch that Smith’s most in­fa­mous off-field an­tic took place.

The stain of that day has not been re­moved, largely be­cause it is not yet clear whether New Zealand Rugby ac­tu­ally knew the full ex­tent of what hap­pened.

Re­cent me­dia rev­e­la­tions have forced New Zealand Rugby to have an­other look at the whole sorry busi­ness. Un­til they are able to defini­tively put a line un­der it and say case closed, Smith will have to con­tinue to be judged on this split pro­fes­sional/per­sonal ba­sis.

Pic­ture / Brett Phibbs

Aaron Smith sets the All Blacks alight by tap­ping a penalty early in Saturday’s test. His kick led to winger Rieko Ioane scor­ing the first try.

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