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All Blacks hand shock recall to Aaron Smith ahead of Ireland test

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Jeremy Ward / www.photosport.nz

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Veteran halfback Aaron Smith has been handed a shock recall into the All Blacks squad ahead of the side’s clash against Ireland in Dublin this weekend.

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The All Blacks confirmed on Tuesday that Smith will rejoin the squad as injury cover following a three-month absence after Brad Weber failed a head injury assessment and broke his nose while playing against Italy in Rome last weekend.

Smith hasn’t played for the All Blacks since they beat the Wallabies in the second Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park in Auckland on August 14.

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The 101-test star was among numerous players who remained in New Zealand due to the arrival of their respective children when the All Blacks departed to Australia for the Rugby Championship later that month.

At the time, New Zealand was in a nationwide lockdown due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Delta variant, bringing a pause to the trans-Tasman travel bubble it had with Australia.

As such, a two-week quarantine was required upon entry into Australia and upon return to New Zealand, leaving Smith out of action for the entire Australian leg of the Rugby Championship.

Smith was joined in New Zealand by Sam Whitelock and Richie Mo’unga, both of whom were also expecting children, along with injured veterans Sam Cane and Dane Coles and loose forward Shannon Frizell.

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Unlike Smith, though, Whitelock, Cane, Coles and Frizell, as well as debutant lock Josh Lord, linked back up with the All Blacks in the United States in the first leg of the current end-of-year tour last month.

Mo’unga, meanwhile, joined up with the squad in Queensland following the arrival of his second child, but only played in a cameo appearance off the bench against the Springboks in New Zealand’s only Rugby Championship defeat in Townsville.

Given that his second child wasn’t due until November and the high-demand for spots in New Zealand’s MIQ facilities, Smith wasn’t expected to play at all for the All Blacks for the remainder of the year.

Instead, the 32-year-old, who is widely-regarded as New Zealand’s premier halfback, turned out for Manawatu in the NPC, making two appearances for the Turbos in their run to the Championship semi-finals.

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However, Weber’s injury – the severity of which will be determined by an “independent concussion specialist”, according to All Blacks assistant coach Scott McLeod, this week – appears to have coincided with the arrival of Smith’s child.

That, in turn, has paved the way for Smith to travel to Ireland, where there are no quarantine restrictions, and France, where double-vaccinated Kiwis don’t have to quarantine, to challenge TJ Perenara and Finlay Christie for the halfback role over the next fortnight.

“I’m very excited to come back and join the boys,” Smith said in a video released on the All Blacks’ social media pages.

“Two very big games for the lads, which is really exciting to be a part of. I’m just looking to try and help where I can, bring a bit of energy.

“The boys have done so well, and it was great to watch them, be a fan from afar, but, deep down, knowing I’d love to be there as well.”

Smith said his call-up only came after he was given the blessing of his wife Teagan, and he maintained that he has no expectations of game time in Europe.

“Since my boy’s arrived, Teagan [Smith’s wife] was all for it. It was a pretty short conversation. She was like, ‘Go, this is a great opportunity for you’,” he said.

“I’m going in with no expectations with playing or anything, but I’ll be trying to do my best to impact where I can.”

Smith added that his departure from New Zealand wasn’t an easy one, but remains upbeat about the prospect of being part of the All Blacks squad once again.

“It was pretty tough at 4:45am saying my goodbyes, but feeling grateful for Teagan, who blessed that I’ve got to go and that, ‘There’s an opportunity for you to finish the year’.

“I’m happy, excited, but a little sad, but I think I’m here, excited to join the team and ready. Just can’t wait.”

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