Opinion - There will be plenty of time this season to collate just how much Aaron Smith has done for New Zealand rugby as a whole. The veteran halfback will bow out as one of the highest capped All Blacks of all time at the end of this season, after over a decade of being one of the first names on the team sheet and virtually no argument about it.

In fact, you'd have to go all the way back to Graeme Bachop in the mid-90s to find an All Black halfback who has had virtually no detractors, and Bachop's grip on the number nine jersey only lasted two seasons.

Sports star farewells are long, drawn-out affairs these days and Smith's will be no different. The first stop on the tour will be his last home game in a 182-game career for the Highlanders, against the Reds on Friday night at Forsyth Barr Stadium, a venue where Smith has played in some of the most memorable wins of his illustrious career.

Unfortunately, not many have come this season. Smith's final Super Rugby campaign will see his Highlanders battling it out for the last playoff spot in a competition designed to get as many teams as possible in them, but really all they're doing is playing to extend their season by a week.

As it stands, the four win, eight loss Highlanders will probably end up playing the Chiefs in Hamilton if they make it to the post season, which will most likely be a loss and a night out drowning their sorrows in Waikato Draught. It's not the way Smith should be ending a career in the dark blue jersey (although he's been around long enough to have started out when they changed to lime green for some reason).

At least he can point to the one shining light in the Highlanders' history as perennial underdogs, a dream run that saw them become Super Rugby champions in 2015. This was when Smith was arguably at his finest, which is definitely worth arguing because he's been so consistently good. Not only did he marshal his forward pack to a final win against a Hurricanes side that had put 50 points on the Highlanders in the last round of the regular season, Smith also showed the kicking game that has been key to him owning the All Black halfback spot.

But that is the one spot of success, which makes Smith the best player on a team that struggles more often than not. Is that a bad thing? Not at all, because he's proven beyond doubt that he thrives with even better players around him. It just seems a shame that the Highlanders organisation finds itself in its weakest position in years to give him a send off.

It's certainly not a shame that Smith will mark the most influential Australian player in the competition this season, with Tate McDermott being the most shining light in a sometimes impressive but ultimately inconsistent Queensland Reds campaign. McDermott is the quintessential Aussie footballer - at his best when his back is against the wall, unafraid of charging into contact against much bigger players and a mouth that would rival Smith's.

This is part of a trio of games featuring the lesser light teams (at least in NZ eyes) that are actually pretty crucial given the eight-team playoff structure. The Highlanders, Reds, Rebels and Drua's fates are somewhat in each others' hands with two weeks to play, although the aforementioned prize of going to Hamilton is probably something that is tempering many expectations.

It's unlikely it will affect Smith, though. The man was born to compete, and by spending his entire Super Rugby career at the battling Highlanders, he's used to doing it the hard way.


2023-05-26T00:24:55Z dg43tfdfdgfd