The Timaru Herald
Smith excited about one final fling
All Blacks star Aaron Smith is clearly excited at playing in his first Super Rugby final since the Highlanders’ sole title in 2015.
The 32-year-old halfback wasted little time in taking to social media to declare his delight after learning on Saturday night that the Highlanders had booked a Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final date with the Blues at Eden Park next Saturday.
Smith said on Twitter: ‘‘We made it’’, noting it was six years since he had played in a final’.
The 97-test All Black is one of only five Highlanders backing up from the team that beat the Hurricanes in the 2015 final.
That group includes hooker Liam Coltman – who overtook Anton Oliver as the most capped Highlanders rake in Friday’s 33-21 win over the Brumbies.
It was Coltman’s 128th game since the nine-test hooker’s Super Rugby debut in 2013.
Coltman, co-captains Smith and Ash Dixon, flanker James Lentjes and prop Josh Hohneck are the Highlanders seeking a second winner’s medal on Saturday, all having been part of the winning team in Wellington in 2015.
The Highlanders will be seeking to maintain their momentum of recent weeks and in particular their gritty performance over the Brumbies in Canberra.
Smith’s two tries and slick skillset provided the touches of class needed to notch victory in Australia’s national capital, but he gave credit to his pack, saying on social media that he was ‘‘grateful’’ for the man of the match award, ‘‘but our forwards were the real MVP tonight’’.
Openside flanker Billy Harmon led the defence with 15 tackles and made 34m with the ball in hand while Hugh Renton was equally obdurate and effected a couple of trademark turnovers.
Harmon and first five-eighth Mitchell Hunt are two other Highlanders with Super Rugby title-winning experience as part of triumphant Crusaders squads.
The Highlanders are hopeful wing Jona Nareki and lock Pari Pari Parkinson will be over shoulder injuries in time for the Eden Park final.
Both left the pitch around the hour mark in Canberra, but head coach Clarke Dermody was talking up their chances afterwards.
While Coltman, Smith, Dixon and Lentjes have been with the Highlanders since their 2015 triumph, Hohneck only returned to Dunedin last year after four seasons in England.
Dermody thought Parkinson just had ‘‘a ding’’, but he was more than happy with reserve lock Josh Dickson’s display off the bench.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald said after his side’s 31-21 win over the Western Force on Saturday night that he was looking forward to the final, but was wary of the ‘‘scary’’ Highlanders with Smith in such good form.
‘‘They were outstanding [against the Brumbies],’’ he said.
‘‘Their set piece was fantastic, some of their special plays off lineouts were great and creative, and they’re well driven around the park by their 9 and 10 which is important for teams contesting a final.
‘‘Aaron Smith is the heart their team and playing great rugby. They deserve to be there, they’ve been consistently doing their thing in the background the whole tournament, and they’ve got better and better to the point now where they’re a scary threat.’’