Smith’s bench­ing a sharp re­buff

Weekend Herald - - Your Sporting Weekend - Wynne Gray

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

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