Since making his All Blacks debut in 2012, Aaron Smith has reigned supreme as New Zealand’s premier halfback.
No player across the country has come close to dislodging the 92-test veteran from his perch as the All Blacks’ starting No. 9 thanks to his lightning bullet pass, unrivalled communication and electric energy he brings to the table.
At the age of 31, though, Smith’s time in New Zealand is due to come to an end within the next few years.
Contracted with New Zealand Rugby and the Highlanders until the end of 2021, there Smith will stay on these shores until at least the end of next year.
He could perhaps sign another contract extension that will see him through until the 2023 World Cup in France, but he will be on the brink of turning 35 by that stage.
Whether or not he can maintain his exceptional level of performance on a constant basis at that age is unclear, and even if he can, the riches on offer in Japan or Europe may be too enticing to turn down once his current deal runs out.
After having won a World Cup, a Super Rugby title and set to win his 100th test cap for the All Blacks, few would slate Smith for taking up a contract abroad, but it would leave New Zealand with a gaping hole to fill at No. 9.
TJ Perenara is Smith’s closest challenger for that spot, and has been for quite some time, and stands as the strongest of favourites to assume the starting role for the All Blacks should Smith depart once his contract expires next year.
Come the 2023 World Cup, though, the 64-test veteran will be closing in on his 32nd birthday, which should spell the end of his international career.
Beyond Smith and Perenara, there are few options screaming out for selection as the long-term succeeder to the incumbent pair.
However, according to Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall and Chiefs scrumhalf Brad Weber, there is one candidate who they believe possesses immense potential and could stand as a possible replacement for Smith and Perenara.
Speaking to the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, the halfback duo – both of whom have spent some time in the national set-up themselves – believe third-string Highlanders No. 9 Folau Fakatava holds plenty of promise.
Two leading #SuperRugbyAotearoa stars say lessons need to be learned from previous failed expansions if a Pacific side is to be successfully added to a revamped version of Super Rugby.https://t.co/wGE7gL1Uth
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 15, 2020
At the age of just 20-year-old, the Tongan-born youngster made his Super Rugby debut last year while still a teenager, although his appearances at that level have been largely restricted due to the presence of Smith and Kayne Hammington.
Still, Fakatava has managed to leave an impression with Hall and Weber, despite having only played three times for the Dunedin franchise.
“He hasn’t played a lot, but he’s really raw. He is electric,” Hall, who in uncapped at test level but was included in an enlarged All Blacks squad that travelled to Japan in 2018, said.
“We played him last year in a pre-season game, and he was pretty much stepping our whole team. This kid has so much talent and so much flair.
“I think Fakatva, for me, is the one to watch.”
A member of the Hawke’s Bay Mitre 10 Cup side, Weber has spent some time with Fakatava at provincial level and is well aware of his Magpies teammate’s ability, comparing him to two-test ex-All Blacks halfback Augustine Pulu.
“I was lucky enough to have a couple of seasons down in Hawke’s Bay where he was competing with me, and he’s a cheeky little bugger, but he is raw,” the five-test All Blacks said.
“He reminds me of Augustine Pulu a lot. He can hit guys, defensively he’s great, but he just tries the most outrageous s*** all the time.
“Apparently he carves up at Highlanders training too, talking to Dicko [Ash Dixon] and stuff.
“He’ll dummy from his own goal line and then chip and chase, and it’ll all come off because he’s just so bloody talented and good, so he’s definitely one to look out for.
“I’m sure, hopefully, he’s learning a lot off Nuggey [Smith] and Kayne down there.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 15, 2020
Fakatava is yet to feature for the Highlanders at all this year, but he could be in line for his first appearance of the year this weekend when his side travel to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs.
A hand fracture has ruled Hammington out for the remainder of Super Rugby Aotearoa, handing Fakatava the perfect opportunity to strut his stuff against New Zealand’s best, starting with Weber and the Chiefs at FMG Stadium Waikato on Sunday.
An extended run off the bench will be of huge benefit for the former Hastings Boys’ High School star, with both Weber and Hall saying that “time in the saddle” is vital to the development of any halfback.
“It’s probably not something you realise at the time when you’re a young fella,” Weber said.
“You think ‘I’m a better player than him’, but it’s not until you actually do go through a lot of situations and moments when you’ve probably made mistakes and learned from them, so the next time that that situation comes up, you’ll know what to do.
“Time in the saddle, as a halfback, is huge because we make thousands of decisions in a rugby game.”
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