Smith looks to build on 'dream' 2012
Most rugby players never get to experience the sort of 2012 that Aaron Smith had.
They don't climb from the Highlanders bench to starting the big games with the All Blacks in the space of a few months - but then most rugby players aren't like Aaron Smith, the nuggety little Manawatu halfback who was the comer of New Zealand rugby's immediate post-World Cup era.
Rewind to this time last year and the 24-year-old had started just three games for the Highlanders behind World Cup winner Jimmy Cowan and was barely known outside of Palmerston North or the Highlanders' Logan Park training base.
Now opposition teams, including the Chiefs ahead of tomorrow's season opener at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium, talk about him in their pre-game buildups. He's a threat.
"Looking at last year, it seems a long time ago," Smith said.
"It was a dream come true and I'm still a bit shocked at how things have turned out.
"I've got the same nerves going into this game, I'm nervous about this week, but excited, and I can't stop smiling at the thought of playing back in that stadium in front of a full house, pulling on a Highlanders jersey again.
"That stuff gets me excited, playing with a good bunch of guys gets me excited. The way training is feeling, it's building for a good week."
Smith didn't have it all his own way last season.
He had to undergo an embarrassing stand-down in September after breaking a team recovery protocol, pushed to the bench for the test against the Springboks in Dunedin, and then his form dipped during the Northern Hemisphere tour in November.
"The year sort of caught up on me towards the end there and I was a bit disappointed with that, but I was very happy with how last year went," he said.
The end of the season was timely, and Smith made the most of getting back to Manawatu - friends, family, backyard cricket, touch and his mum's couch - but not Christmas dinner.
"I definitely got to have a good break during December. It was good to get away from rugby, just freshen up, see the family and enjoy the Kiwi summer," he said.
"You can't blow out too much, eating what you like and drinking booze. I was a little bit cautious, obviously being a Maori boy we grab the food pretty well."
Smith is determined not to become a victim of any sort of second-year phenomenon.
"Ask any rugby player ... I don't think any player goes into a year wanting to do bad. Every game I'm trying to be the best I can be," he said.
"I really want to step up again, take some more steps in my game and hopefully I can do that with some of the stuff I learnt last year.
"Last year I was trying to prove to people why [I'm here], and now I've just got to prove the exact same thing."
The Highlanders will name their team to take on the Chiefs today.
- The Southland Times