Buoyant Aaron Smith eyes taking down Chiefs
After a month like no other in young halfback Aaron Smith's life, it is back to the day job this week and the Highlanders' crucial Super Rugby game against the Chiefs this Friday.
The past four weeks have been a whirl for Smith, after the All Blacks selectors decided the Manawatu 23-year-old was the man to fill the contentious No9 jersey.
His quick smile and ready wit – matched with a compelling back story as a hairdressing apprentice turned pro rugby player – quickly found favour with the media and the public. Match that with precision passing and incisive running, and a new crowd favourite was born.
Smith's assimilation into the All Blacks machine was aided by the presence of fellow Highlanders Adam Thomson, Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith in the squad, not to mention Manawatu team-mate Aaron Cruden.
"It's your childhood dream so you know it's going to be amazing, and it's all that and more," Smith said.
"Having all those Highlanders boys there really helped me settle in and especially having Andrew Hore there as an established senior player I knew and could talk to about stuff was great."
The euphoria of Smith's test debut was short-lived, with the reality check brought by the narrow second-test win. Suddenly, Smith knew test rugby wasn't always going to be that easy.
His third test – last week's 60-0 demolition of Ireland – will be treasured for a lifetime. Seldom will he enjoy such an armchair ride, as the All Blacks pack roared like a high-performance car and the outside backs sparked with ingenuity.
"It was pretty awesome, and great to be able to bounce back after the disappointment of Christchurch and show what we could really do. Nobody wanted to be in the first All Blacks team to lose to Ireland."
In many ways, Smith owes his black jersey to Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, who has backed him from the early days of his career.
Plucking Smith from obscurity to play for New Zealand Maori, Joseph again called on Smith when he became Highlanders coach – and has kept faith with the youngster despite having veteran All Black Jimmy Cowan at his disposal.
"Jamie has been huge for me. He's always backed me and told me if I was the best player I would be playing. That gives you confidence and lets you go out and play your game," Smith said.
Now, however, it is back to business. The briefest of days off, before an early morning weights session and training runs prior to Friday's match – a game the Highlanders must win, and win well, to keep their slim playoffs hopes alive.
"It has been a bit of an up-and-down season. We've had some good wins but we've maybe lost some games we should have won," Smith said.
"We need to beat the Chiefs and the Reds to have any chance of making the finals, and if we can do that then we're good enough to be there."
"It's our last regular season game at Forsyth Barr and we're going to want to put on a good show for the Dunedin and Otago people, who have been awesome."