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‘Thank you Eden Park’: Aaron Smith farewells NZ’s home of rugby

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

When All Blacks and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith ran off the sacred turf of Eden Park on Friday night, the legendary No. 9 received an ovation from the Auckland crowd.

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With the game in the balance, and so too the Highlanders’ season, rugby fans in New Zealand watched on as one of the modern-day greats left the field for what could be the last time in Super Rugby.

But what is certain is that this will be the last time Smith plays at the famous venue for “the foreseeable future.”

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The All Blacks won’t play at Eden Park this year, and will instead take their clash with rivals South Africa to Mt Smart Stadium due to the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Whether it was in All Blacks or Highlanders colours, Smith has celebrated some famous victorious at “the Garden of Eden” – but of course, much like Friday night, reflected on some painful defeats.

But shortly after the full-time siren, as the significance of the moment undoubtedly continued to sink in, the Test centurion couldn’t have been more grateful – saying “thank you Eden Park.”

“This is the Garden of Eden mate, this is an awesome place and I’ve had some great memories here with the Highlanders but a lot in the All Black jersey as well,” Smith said on Sky Sport.

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“To not play here again, hopefully I can maybe.

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“When I was driving up from the bus today it was emotions of, ‘Holy, this could be the last.’ Obviously you don’t know what the year holds but there is no All Black Test here either.

“Last year, I remember Fossie said to me too, ‘This could be our last time at Eden Park’ when we played the Bledisloe here.

“Tonight was obviously for the foreseeable future the last for me.

“I look back with a full heart, love playing here, and to get that little clap at the end, I sort of tapped the ground as I ran off to say thank you.

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“We got a bonus point and that might get us a game in Hamilton next week.”

The halfback will leave New Zealand after this year’s Rugby World Cup after signing for Japan Rugby League One side Toyota Verblitz.

Smith will embark on a new journey with the Japanese club alongside long-time international teammate Beauden Barrett, who has also put pen to paper with the team.

The Highlanders announced the news more than 110 days ago, as they confirmed that Smith had signed a “long-term contract” with the Japanese club.

Since, Smith has experienced “a whirlwind of a season.”

“It’s been a whirlwind of a season for me. A lot of emotions,” Smith added.

“The goal has been, since we had a rough start, to make the playoffs and I’d love that one more week and I’d love to play the best team in the comp and give them everything.

“As I sit in the changerooms and the spa and that, I’ll be thinking about the good times that I’ve had here too. In a different colour jersey, I’ve drunk out of the Bledisloe here and I had my debut here.

“I was here for a lot of big games and this is a special stadium for me and I’ll never forget it.”

The Highlanders’ season hangs in the balance following their tough 16-9 loss to the Blues on Friday night.

Going into the final round of the regular season, the men from the deep south sat in eighth place on the Super Rugby Pacific ladder.

A win at Eden Park would clinch a spot in the finals, but loss would take their playoffs hopes out of their hands – and end Smith’s legendary career with the Dunedin-based franchise.

But it wasn’t to be. The Highlanders were valiant, but fell short of the result that they so desperately needed.

“Well (the plan) was to make it ugly so it probably wasn’t a spectators, fan favourite.

“We wanted to kick it in behind, turn them around, make them run back in attack, and try and stop them on the break.

“Guys like Mark Telea, Rieko (Ioane) and that in open space are dangerous.

“I thought we had good periods of that but when they get in behind you and are able to build pressure, they just got through us twice tonight, that really gutted us.

“We wanted to kick down there, pressure them, and try and kick points like we did, but we needed to try and convert a couple of opportunities too.”

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