Age is no barrier to evergreen All Blacks and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith. Well, it’s no barrier provided meticulous preparation and recovery is implemented in the latter stages of his sporting career.
That, according to the 32-year-old veteran, is exactly the secret behind his prolonged spell as arguably the greatest No. 9 rugby has ever seen.
Some will argue others – such as Gareth Edwards, Joost van der Westhuizen and George Gregan – deserve that title, but there is nobody who has influenced the sport in the way Smith has since he debuted for the All Blacks in 2012.
Since then, he has played 97 tests for his country, has claimed a World Cup, was a crucial figure in guiding the Highlanders to their first-ever Super Rugby crown and has won a multitude of Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship accolades.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. To say that Smith has simply won those trophies doesn’t represent how important he has been for both the All Blacks and Highlanders over the better part of a decade.
During that time, he has become renowned for the energy he brings to the field. His voice is constantly heard whenever he is on the park, and the time he spends in the match often beggars belief given the output he provides for whichever side he plays for.
By the time he is either subbed off or the full-time whistle sounds, there is barely a blade of grass Smith hasn’t covered. His box kicking has also become world-class and he has developed into a key leader in whatever dressing room he finds himself in.
Smith’s biggest strength, however, is undoubtedly his passing game. His crisp, accurate bullet passing has been a staple of the All Blacks’ and Highlanders’ game plan for so long now, and it seems unlikely that will change now he has signed on with New Zealand Rugby for another two years.
By putting pen to paper to stay on Kiwi shores until 2023, Smith has committed himself to pursuing a third World Cup appearance, a goal he didn’t shy away from discussing while talking to the media about his contract extension on Tuesday.
“That is the end goal,” he said. “Obviously, the 2019 World Cup was a disappointment for me, and then feeling the success of 2015, having the feeling of both, it’s very interesting.”
The failure of being knocked out by England at the semi-final stage of the tournament in Japan is driving Smith to help the All Blacks redeem themselves in France in two years’ time.
In order to get there, though, he acknowledged changes need to be made and high standards have to be maintained in multiple aspects of his life.
It seems that whatever Aaron Smith does, there are inevitably going to be questions about one of New Zealand’s most promising up-and-coming stars. So will Smith’s new contract force Folau Fakatava’s hand? #SuperRugbyAotearoa #AllBlackshttps://t.co/jaF5h2dQ1q
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 2, 2021
By the time the next World Cup rolls around, Smith will be 34. As a high performance athlete about to enter his mid-30s, Smith is aware he will be no spring chicken in 2023, even if he currently feels in career-best shape at this point in time.
“I was talking to my wife the other day and I said I feel better than I did when I was 28 or 27. The way I look after my body, the way I eat, the way I live now, the technology is out there now to recover better,” he said.
“I’ve put a lot of time into my body at training, I’ve put a lot of time into my body in recovery around ice, sauna, leg pumps. I do most things. I have a good routine around recovery.
“There’s some pretty good technology out there around other athletes playing a lot longer, so it’s all about what you’re willing to put into your body.”
It’s that routine around preparation and recovery that will be crucial in getting Smith on the plane to France, as is the way in which he trains, an aspect of his life he hasn’t neglected.
In fact, Smith is so adamant on staying on top of his fitness that he even set aside time to jump on the rowing machine on Christmas Day.
“I’m a bit crazy with my training these days,” he said as he revealed he is producing better gym results at this point in his career as he was a few years ago.
“Some of those long All Blacks season between 2014 to 2017 was 30-odd games, play 14 or 15 long runs with the Highlanders, then go play most tests for the All Blacks.
“You can feel a little bit down, but now, just trying to break it up, use your breaks well, training smartly.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 3, 2021
“I don’t go for as many road runs, but I’ll do watt bikes or rowers to save my legs because that’s the danger as an old athlete is going for a big, long road run and then trying to squat the next day.
“Just being smart. Still trying to get that workout I need around my cardio capacity, but being smart about it.
“[Highlanders trainer] Simon Jones in the last two years really invigorated my training around the way he trains his athletes, plus he listens to you. He’s guided me a lot and he’s actually helped me heaps.
“I’m actually lifting a lot more than I did in the middle of my career because he’s changed my mindset with that around being under a heavy bar and then still being able to train and play at a high level.”
With Jones and All Blacks trainer Nic Gill at the helm of Smith’s training regime, the prospect of attending the 2023 World Cup remains a real possibility.
However, in spite of his status as one of the greatest halfbacks of all-time, Smith said it is no given he will be part of the squad that will look to reclaim the Webb Ellis Cup off the Springboks.
To give himself the best chance of being part of the squad tasked with doing that, a plan has been devised by Smith, his trainers and his coaches to adhere to more efficient training methods and managed playing minutes between now and France 2023.
That plan will get underway as early as this Friday, as rising Highlanders star Folau Fakatava has been named to start at No. 9 against the Chiefs, while Smith will play from the bench.
There’s no promising that that plan will pay off when it comes time to naming the next All Blacks World Cup squad, but Smith can’t be questioned for the amount of time, effort and desire he has put in to be part of that team.
“The contract just gives me the opportunity to push for that. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I’ve been very lucky to this point, but I think it just gives me the opportunity that that can be an end goal, an end outcome,” he said of playing at the World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 3, 2021
“Talking with Jonesy, our coaches here and Nic Gill as well, there’s a real plan around how do I get there.
“I can’t do what I did in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year and play 78 minutes every week, throwing my body into hell and hoping I’m going to get there. That is just not fathomable. At the end of Aotearoa last year, I was a broken man… Those days of trying to be the man and getting rode like a horse, you just can’t do it.
“I feel great. Mentally, I feel like I’m willing to put that work in for that long. I think that’s the key. What a dream it would even be to make it to that point, so I hope I’m talking to you in three years and we’re talking about that.
“But, I know rugby, and I know you’ve got to keep your vision and dream short, so that’s why I’ve signed that contract, to hopefully make it to that point.”
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