The rise of Aaron Smith

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 16/06/2012
Aaron Smith
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
FAST PASS: Aaron Smith offloads the ball during an All Blacks training session at Linfield Park ahead of the second test against Ireland.

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Jason O'Halloran stopped and stared when he glimpsed a diminutive Maori fellow by the name of Aaron Smith spitting out missile passes.

O'Halloran, who began working with the Manawatu Rugby Union academy in late 2007, watched the teenage Smith flick the ball so swiftly off the turf he realised the talented halfback would quickly be lassoed into the Manawatu side the following season.

"My first impressions were that Aaron had an unbelievable skill-set," O'Halloran, a one-test All Blacks midfielder and now Manawatu head coach, reflected.

"From the first time I saw him he was an amazing distributor and he was also very agile in his ability to move laterally and step. But it is his passing technique that is very unique because he almost squeezes the ball out between his thumb and forefinger."

Smith has created a flurry of comment since his test debut in the All Blacks' 42-10 win over the Ireland.

His passes to first five-eighth Dan Carter proved swift and accurate and his option-taking was sound behind a superior pack.

Life may be a little more complicated if conditions are wet in tonight's second test at AMI Stadium and if he plays against the Springboks later in the season Smith will expect a hotter reception from a bigger, more aggressive forwards unit.

Even the 23-year-old would agree it is too soon to go weak-kneed with joy after just one performance but his calm temperament and low error-rate at Eden Park suggest All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could feel vindicated in promoting the player in only his second season of Super Rugby.

Feilding born-and-raised Smith has also become the flag-bearer for other small halfbacks who suspect a lack of kilos hinder their development.

At 1.71m and generously listed in the All Blacks media guide at 85kg, Smith rarely looks down at an opponent when they wait for a scrum feed.

In an age where many halfbacks' height – Wales' Mike Phillips stands 1.91m – make a mockery of the old adage the smallest bloke should be a No9, the emergence of Smith is a throwback to a bygone era.

But O'Halloran warns opponents they shouldn't be sucked into thinking Smith's short stature makes him an easy man to bowl.

When Smith attended Feilding High School with All Blacks team-mate Sam Whitelock, his passing, speed and natural skills compensated for the need to be gung-ho in defence.

That was one matter that needed to be addressed when he joined the academy said O'Halloran.

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"He probably used to underestimate the importance of that role a little bit and initially thought his job was just to distribute the ball. His defence would be questioned three or four years ago but now he knows he has to go low and hang on for grim death. He has developed into a tough little guy."

Like the majority of halfbacks around the world, Smith's coaches and team-mates state he is the chirpy sort who enjoys a verbal joust.

He is also arguably the first All Blacks halfback to have worked as an apprentice hairdresser.

O'Halloran says Smith is rarely short of a riposte.

"If you are a rugby player-slash-hairdresser it pays to have the gift of the gab – and he can fire back pretty quickly. He is a great character that is for sure."

It is the ability to communicate on the field, the willingness to organise his forwards, which also pleases his superiors.

Although Smith had proved a smart operator for Manawatu, represented the New Zealand Maori team in 2010 and played 12 matches for the Highlanders last year, he was never considered a real prospect for the All Blacks until he ousted Jimmy Cowan this season.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen was impressed. All those hours Smith spent firing a ball at a wheelie bin in the family driveway as a youngster were about to pay off.

"Right at the beginning of the Super 15, after three or four games, if he could cope with the physicality – and he showed us he could – he had the game to play test rugby," Hansen said.

"He was just a bit of a freak in that area (passing) and we haven't had one like that since Graeme Bachop [former All Blacks halfback]."

Even at Feilding High Smith displayed a calm temperament but in his first year in the 1st 15 he played first five-eighth because a more experienced player was preferred at No9.

Former coach Rick Francis noted Smith's major strength, even in Year 11, was his transferring of the ball.

"He wasn't that big, probably just a bit bigger than 70kg but he had the huge advantage in that he was able to pass so well off both hands," Francis said. "He was a very sparky personality. He was a typical halfback, cheeky, and he used to get a bit of flea in the ear now and again to help bring him back in line."

After school Smith continued his association with the Feilding Yellows club, who wear yellow and black jerseys. It was at the club where he earned the nick-named "Nugget" because he was compared to a Crunchie Bar – a gold nugget inside the jersey.

Last week he became the club's first All Black since tough flanker Kevin Eveleigh who played 30 matches (4 tests) between 1974 and 1977.

- The Press

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