Marc Hinton: Aaron Smith's response to tough week impressive in ABs victory
OPINION: Last year when Aaron Smith's world was rocked, he imploded. This year he has steeled himself and responded in the best possible fashion.
The same, of course, could be said about the All Blacks. Under the gun in the Australian media all week, from exposes on their private activities, to coverage of the bugging trial, to general bullishness about the prospects of the Wallabies, they responded in style come rugby time on Saturday night in Sydney.
It was a fine All Black performance, at least until they buttoned off early in the second half with the game safe, at 54-6. There will be some concern about the four straight tries the Australian scored over the run home to make the final 54-34 scoreline at least respectable, but this test was well and truly done by that stage.
New chums Damian McKenzie and Liam Squire played the house down, and made emphatic statements about their test futures in the process. Others such as Sonny Bill Williams and Beauden Barrett, who perhaps had points to make on the back of the Lions series, also produced quality efforts.
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But none can have enjoyed their night's work as much as Smith who put in 52 outstanding minutes before exiting stage left with a smile as wide as the All Blacks' margin at the time.
The little halfback may have his issues in his private life, and possibly even in his employment one with his bosses re-convening an inquiry into last year's antics on the basis of new information unearthed in the Australia media this past week.
But on the rugby field Smith looks a different man this year. Some predicted he would be too distracted to even front in this Bledisloe opener. But there he was, and on top of his rugby game.
That's the mental strength we expect from an All Black. That's the way a sportsman should come out when his back is to the wall.
Maybe he was just so relieved when the talking finally ended and the rugby started. So happy that he came out and played the way he does when his team is rolling forward and the ball is flowing quickly.
He produced brilliantly timed passes to put Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith in for tries, and in general his distribution was back to its snappy and razor-sharp best.
The performances of McKenzie and Squire were also notable.
McKenzie has a wide open run after Dunedin next week, when Ben Smith will go on sabbatical and with Jordie Barrett shut down for the year. On the strength of this he deserves first crack, even if he may be asked to rein in one or two of his looser inclinations.
Squire too showed that he has plenty to offer in the No 6 position, with his speed around the field offering a welcome dimension that the veteran Jerome Kaino no longer affords.
The sneaking suspicion that we have seen a changing of the guard at blindside flanker will not have been quieted by Squire's busy and bustling performance.
It was cheering, too, to see Sonny Bill Williams back operating efficiently in the midfield, where his combination with Ryan Crotty was mostly on song. Barrett, too, enjoyed the romp until the tide turned in the second half.
Brodie Retallick was quality through that first 50, and Crotty reminded us again of the all-round class he possesses. Rieko Ioane also continued his outstanding finishing in the black jersey with a pair of well-taken tries. The scrum wasn't great, and will no doubt be assessed over the next seven days.
But the main concern for coach Steve Hansen, ahead of the rematch in Dunedin in a week's time, will be the nature of the Wallabies' second-half comeback when they roared back from 54-6 to 54-34.
How much of that was the All Blacks simply putting the cue in the rack with the job done? And how much was it the Wallabies finding the game they'll need to really trouble the New Zealanders?
You suspect the former. But we'll be wiser in a week's time when the buildup in Dunedin is certain to lack the tabloid nature of this week's one.
One final comment: once again the tight calls didn't go the All Blacks' way down the stretch, with Israel Folau's try looking for all money to be offisde, and Barrett's late pounce in his chargedown appearing a legit score.
This time those big calls didn't hurt the All Blacks. By then the job had been well and truly done.