Aaron Smith repaying the faith to Highlanders
All Black Aaron Smith will be back with the Highlanders next season, but first he's hoping to help them to a first Super Rugby playoff appearance in more than a decade.
Smith, who comes off contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union and the Highlanders at the end of the season, plans to re-sign with the franchise he has played 57 games for since making his debut in 2011.
''It's pretty much sorted; it's just sorting out the length of [the contract] really. This is my home and it's going to be my home for the next few years,'' Smith said.
In the meantime, it's a season-defining game against the Crusaders tomorrow night that has Smith's full attention.
A win in the mainland derby in Christchurch would send the Highlanders to the playoffs for the first time, although a bonus point may also be enough depending on other results tonight.
Despite a demanding season at Super Rugby and international level, Smith is excited about the regular-season finale.
''I wouldn't lie and say I wasn't a bit beaten up after the England campaign. The week leading into the Waratahs was a good long week and I was able to refresh and get away from rugby for a bit.
"This week - if you can't get up for a derby game, then I don't know what will get you up. I love the challenge of playing Andy [Ellis] and I love the challenge of playing the Crusaders,'' Smith said.
''There's no Sunday for us, that's our mindset. Knowing that it's this part of the season, when you want to play well, these are the games you look forward to. After 15 or 16 games, this is what it's about.''
Smith said his decision to stay in Dunedin was about repaying the faith that had been shown in him.
''I've tried to be loyal. These guys gave me my shot and I was able to live out my dream of becoming an All Black here. I owe them a lot for that and I've got to be pretty honest about the coaches too - Jamie [Joseph] has helped me a lot and then Brownie [Tony Brown] has helped my game go to another level this year.
"It buzzes me out a bit about how I've been going, and I put a lot of that down to Brownie.''
Smith loves playing under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium and said it was a big factor in keeping him in the south.
''I play half my games under a roof with a dry ball. That can be bad for you but it suits me and it suits us as the Highlanders.''
The Feilding-born halfback hopes he will eventually be claimed as a southern man by the local rugby fraternity.
''I love it down here. I love being a Highlander and intend to be for a few years.''
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph takes some satisfaction in Smith's evolution after bringing him to the Highlanders after coaching him in the New Zealand Maori side.
''He's been a great player for us. He's come from nowhere and he likes it down here. He's obviously an important player for the All Blacks but he's also an important part of the Highlanders.
"He's part of the leadership group and he sees a future for himself in our team.''
- The Southland Times