Aaron Smith shines bright for the Highlanders
Steve Hansen may have his worries, but Aaron Smith is not one of them this year. The little halfback they call Nugget is shining on a regular basis for the Highlanders, revelling in its underdog role in 2014.
With the firm of Smith and Smith (the classy Ben Smith is also in the form of his life for the southerners) leading the way, Jamie Joseph's largely unheralded bunch are making believers of us all this year, already slipping past their win total of 2013 just seven games into this campaign.
After Friday night's, er, nuggety 27-20 victory over the Bulls in Dunedin, the 4-3 Highlanders hit 19 points, giving them temporary possession of fifth place overall on the standings. It's heady territory for an outfit that held squatter's rights on the basement last year.
Smith's form transformation is a big part of that. Last season, weighed down by expectation and under-achievement in a star-studded lineup, the All Blacks halfback never found his groove in Super Rugby. It wasn't until the test campaign, when he was able to free his cluttered mind, that his true form emerged.
A lot has changed this year, and after Friday's meritorious victory over a Bulls side that dominated possession and asked numerous questions of the Highlanders defence, it was clear that almost all of it has been for the good.
This was a match last year's All Blacks-laden Highlanders would have lost. They had to dig deep, they had to think hard, keep the faith and play collectively.
Smith's form surge personifies what Jamie Joseph has been able to achieve with a group almost bereft of big names.
The little halfback, along with his namesake, has thrived on the responsibility of both leadership and performance that has been subtly shifted onto his shoulders. But he's also been energised by a group that plays hard and has each other's backs. They have worked out that, without that, they stand no chance in this competition.
"I learned the biggest lessons last year and pretty much did the total opposite this year," said Smith of his 2014 approach.
Smith credited the Hurricanes with showing them how to defend against that Bulls drive.
"I was happy about the spirit of the team, and how I contributed to that. It's not about how I went, and that's the spirit of our team - you give and you'll get the reward."
It's not all Smith and Smith in the south. Malakai Fekitoa is rocketing into national contention at centre, Lima Sopoaga is a growing force at No 10, Pat Osborne and Richard Buckman are thriving on the wing, Liam Coltman is a young hooker on the rise and energy men like Elliot Dixon and Gareth Evans are making the most of their chances.
The only bad news was the loss of Brad Thorn for the rest of the season with torn biceps.
Sunday Star Times