Smith’s benching a sharp rebuff
When Aaron Smith made the All Blacks, he became the key to driving a style which outflanked most opponents.
The speed of his pass gave the attack extra venom either side of the ruck, while his kicking game and occasional sniping runs also put doubt into the defensive line.
That cocktail of danger has eased this season, with his distribution not as sharp and the other parts of his game wavering as well. He was overshadowed by Springbok livewire Faf de Klerk during the Rugby Championship, then replaced by TJ Perenara for the opening tour hitout against the Wallabies in Japan.
The All Blacks marked that test as their rehearsal for tomorrow’s duel with England, with the inclusion of
centre Jack Goodhue after recovering from illness and lock Brodie Retallick after a solid injury return from the bench among the few changes.
The selectors have persisted with Damian McKenzie as the fullback who doubles as a second playmaker, and Sonny Bill Williams, who is still to run into his best form in midfield, but have flipped the dress-rehearsal guide at halfback, with Smith to start.
His game was solid in his 20 minutes’ work as a sub against the
Smith was sent a significant message in Japan and has now been offered a huge chance to bring a new sting to his work.
Wallabies but there was little from that work or the competent hour from Perenara which suggested they would swap duties this weekend.
Perhaps it was always the plan. Maybe Steve Hansen felt Smith needed a rebuff to reignite his game and the selectors saw that emerge during the fortnight’s training the squad had for this test.
Maybe the tests Smith has played against England at home and Twickenham persuaded the selectors his game was best suited to unsettling their rivals. That argument has more substance when Smith’s game is in prime shape, and the starting rebuff in Yokohama may have tripped that switch for the duel with the host halfback Ben Youngs.
There is an enthralling beauty about the All Blacks when their forwards roll into their work, with Smith sending out a sizzling stream of passes to his inventive backline, but that vision has been more hope than guarantee this season. They have been effective, but one part and sometimes several issues have misfired to interrupt the ambition.
We wondered when Hansen plucked Smith out of Super Rugby in 2012 and started him ahead of any of the previous year’s winning World Cup halfbacks but we soon learned the head coach had a rare eye for talent. Retallick, Barrett, Sam Cane and Dane Coles are among many he’s identified and helped polish.
Players talk about how Hansen knows when and how to get the best out of their games. There’s no single formula fits all. Some respond to a quiet word and others to a rark-up in front of their mates or as part of a general squad tune-up.
Apart from his self-inflicted troubles in 2016, injury or time for a rest, Smith’s form has stayed above the line and kept him in the starting role. This is different. He was sent a significant message about his game in Japan and has now been offered a huge chance to bring a new sting to his work at Twickenham.
Aaron Smith’s form has dipped this year.Photo / Photosport