All Blacks v Ireland: Aaron Smith hits milestone as All Blacks make just one change for Dublin test

2018-11-15 04:46:47

You know the world is changing when a former hairdresser is just days away from becoming the most capped All Blacks halfback in history.

Aaron Smith, raised in the Manawatū town of Feilding and later accomplished in the art of snipping fringes, doesn't fit the mould of some No 9s who went before him.

Justin Marshall, who will surrender his record as most capped All Black halfback when Smith plays his 82nd test in Dublin against Ireland on Sunday morning, was a former freezing worker from Mataura and sported a bigger physique.

Another Southlander, Jimmy Cowan, was also a rugged, combative customer. Then there was the heavier, but courageous, Piri Weepu from Wainuiomata who learned the art of taking punishment by playing rugby league as a kid.

Smith, in some ways, redefined the game when he was picked by the All Blacks selectors to play Ireland when they toured New Zealand in 2012. He arrived with a rocket pass, and a big heart. Size was not on his side.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said the coaches had a long discussion prior to confirming the team to face the Irish, even though just one change has been made to the team that started against England in London last Sunday.

Ryan Crotty has predictably replaced injured No 12 Sonny Bill Williams, with Anton Lienert-Brown joining the reserves. Blindside flanker Liam Squire has been suffering from diarrhoea and skipped training on Tuesday, has been named to start. Hansen guaranteed he would be fit to start.

Smith, who it must be said hasn't been in terrific nick in recent months, has held off the challenge of TJ Perenara.

In a game dominated by giants, thanks to gym programmes and supplements, the 83kg Smith is at the lower end of the scale in terms of weight and height.

Yet he survives being mangled by some of the monsters now in the sport.

"As I said he is a very passionate man, and you get him to have a sense of belonging and committed to the group he will die for it," Hansen said.

"He is not the most physical halfback, there is no doubt about that, but he doesn't get hurt too often either - doesn't miss too many tackles.

"I can probably count on one hand how many misses have cost us."

The fact Smith doesn't get injured too often, or spend time on the turf waiting for doctors to patch him, up says a fair bit about his durability. Hansen said his toughness can easily be overlooked: "Probably. Because his greatest strengths are so obvious."

It would be disingenuous to say Smith's form warranted him being an easy pick for the game against the Irish at Aviva Stadium. Because it hasn't. Smith's kicking could be more accurate, he was outplayed by Faf de Klerk when the All Blacks sneaked home against the Springboks in Pretoria in the Rugby Championship.

Hansen first learned about Smith's skills when Jamie Joseph, now in charge of Japan, told him about this nippy No 9 he had picked for the NZ Maori side. When he became head coach of the All Blacks in 2012, Hansen had a close look at the Highlanders player.

"We knew Jamie Joseph had a lot of time for him, and whilst he was 100 miles an hour - he needed a little refining, obviously - we could see that the potential was there."

Speed, enthusiasm and passion are traits of Smith's game, Hansen emphasised.

"It allows us to play a different type of game, if we need to have a strong personality on at the end of the game then we have got TJ to put back on.

"But Aaron has done a marvellous job, speeding up our delivery of our ball and allowing us to play at a speed that has been uncomfortable for other teams at times."

Meanwhile, Hansen said he had no concerns about Liam Squire's fitness after he missed a training session earlier this week. "He's got diarrhoea," the coach said. "He'll be fine."


All Blacks: Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu'inukuafe. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo'unga, Anton Lienert-Brown.

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