Highlanders' Smith combo has Reds concerned
The dazzling performances of Highlanders Smith duo Aaron and Ben have made the Queensland Reds wary of them before Friday night's Super Rugby clash in Brisbane.
The 2011 champions are battling to regain respectability by avoiding a seventh straight defeat. Coach Richard Graham and centurion-in-waiting Will Genia emphasised the scale of their challenge at Suncorp Stadium when assessing the form of the All Black No 9 and versatile outside back.
Genia has faced six All Blacks halfbacks during his 16 tests against the World Cup holders. He rates Smith as arguably the best in his position in world rugby - an accolade the 55-cap veteran enjoyed before his status dipped during last year's British and Irish Lions series.
"He's obviously right up there," Genia said.
"He's world-class, he's a quality player. They've been blessed and fortunate to have had very good players [halfbacks]," said Genia.
Most of his trans-Tasman test career has been spent marking Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu.
The 26-year-old has also combated Alby Mathewson, Brendon Leonard, Andy Ellis, and Smith's current deputy, Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Genia also remembered watching Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher - though it was Smith who stands out.
"He's a little bit different to those sorts of players. Kelleher and Marshall were more a ninth forward and were big ball carriers.
"He's a nippy little bloke, quick bloke with a really good pass. He's probably the best going around."
When Genia was at his peak in 2010-11 All Blacks coach Graham Henry urged halfbacks in New Zealand to study Genia's skill set - and now the boot is on the other foot as the former Wallabies captain tries to recapture that form.
"I like watching Aaron Smith play. He's world-class and does the basics really well. He's obviously someone I admire and try to learn a little bit off as well," said Genia, who hopes the bottom-placed Reds' first win since March will cap his 100th appearance for the franchise.
Graham, whose reputation has also suffered since succeeding Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, admitted Aaron Smith was an opponent they had to shut down.
"Aaron Smith characterises them [the Highlanders] as a team. Very busy, lot of speed, a lot of urgency in what they do," he said, before also praising Smith's unrelated namesake and the power of All Black-in-waiting Malakai Fekitoa.
"Fekitoa at 13 has been very good and then you've got Ben Smith who arguably for me is probably the best fullback in the world at the moment on form.
"I think Smith's ability to find space, carry the ball in two hands ... set up people around him is very, very good," he said, rating the Kiwi ahead of All Blacks incumbent Israel Dagg and the Wallabies' Israel Folau.
Refocusing on his own side, Graham has had to make several changes to the lineup pipped by the Melbourne Rebels before last weekend's bye.
Loose forward Eddie Quirk is the latest casualty after he suffered a season-ending knee injury at training on Monday.
Former Wallabies openside Liam Gill returns from a calf injury to add impact from the bench after logging just 50 minutes of game time in the last nine weeks.
Loosehead prop James Slipper has served a three-week suspension for a lifting tackle to bolster a front row missing Saia Fainga'a (calf), Jono Owen (back) and Ben Daley (thumb).
Those injuries mean uncapped hooker Andrew Ready and prop Sef Faagase join the bench for the first time.
Centre Samu Kerevi is also poised to make his debut.
Queensland Reds: Mike Harris, Dom Shipperley, Ben Tapuai, Anthony Fainga'a, Rod Davies, Ben Lucas, Will Genia, Jake Schatz, Beau Robinson, Curtis Browning, James Horwill (captain), Rob Simmons, Greg Holmes, James Hanson, James Slipper. Reserves: Andrew Ready, Albert Anae, Sef Faagase, Dave McDuling, Liam Gill, Nick Frisby, Samu Kerevi, Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.