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'Pretty unrealistic': Aaron Smith unlikely to play against Ireland

By Alex McLeod

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The All Blacks have played down the prospect of Aaron Smith making his long-awaited return to test rugby against Ireland in Dublin this weekend.

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Smith was a surprise call-up to the All Blacks squad on Tuesday after having not played for New Zealand in three months by virtue of opting to skip the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour to stay at home for the birth of his second child.

However, injuries to Brad Weber and Finlay Christie have forced the All Blacks to call upon Smith, whose cild, Leo, was born in recent weeks.

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Considering Smith wasn’t expected to play for the All Blacks for the rest of the year, the 101-test veteran’s recall came as a surprise as the national selectors seemed comfortable rotating Weber, Christie and TJ Perenara in the No 9 jersey.

That has been the case in New Zealand’s eight previous tests, all of which have come since Smith’s last outing for the All Blacks, which was against the Wallabies in his side’s second Bledisloe Cup victory at Eden Park in August.

Hopes that Smith will end his absence in the black jersey against the Irish in what is a highly-anticipated fixture at Aviva Stadium on Sunday [NZT] have been watered down, though.

Speaking to media on Wednesday [NZT], All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree said it is “pretty unrelaistic” to expect the 32-year-old, who is currently in transit to Europe, to play at such short notice.

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Instead, Plumtree is banking on the form of Perenara and the fitness of Christie to guide them through this week’s test, which Weber is unlikely to play a part of after he broke his nose and failed a head injury assessment against Italy in Rome last weekend.

“Right now, we’ve got three 9s [Perenara, Christie and Weber] in the hunt for this weekend’s start,” Plumtree told reporters from Dublin.

“Aaron’s only arriving on Wednesday, doesn’t know what the plan is, so it’s pretty unrealistic to think that Aaron’s going to be playing on the weekend.

“TJ, pretty happy with his form. All of them are going pretty well. Obviously Brad’s got his HIA protocols that he’s going through this week, and Finlay [has a] little bit of an issue with his neck, but he trained today. Expecting him to be fit for the weekend.”

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Should Smith miss this week’s contest against Ireland, he would stand as a strong candidate to start in New Zealand’s season-ending clash against France in Paris next week in a test billed as one of the biggest on the All Blacks’ international calendar.

His experience, leadership, world-class passing, high levels of energy and pinpoint box-kicking would serve the All Blacks well as he remains the undoubted first-choice halfback option in New Zealand.

Fielding Smith against Les Bleus would also present a juicy match-up at No 9, with France possessing highly-touted rising star Antoine Dupont.

Smith said earlier this year that he would relish the chance to square off against Dupont, who he described earlier this year as “probably the best halfback in the world”, for the first time since 2017.

“If things go well, I could hopefully get over to the end of year tour and I’d love nothing more than to have a go against Dupont,” Smith said in September.

“He’s probably the best halfback in the world at the moment. He’s outstanding. Playing in Paris against the French, that’s a pretty awesome script.

“Also, that’s where the next World Cup is so those kinds of things, and building to things like that [are exciting].”

Plumtree added that prop Angus Ta’avao, who dislocated his elbow in the lead-up to the test against Wales a fortnight ago, is the squad’s only other injury concern after wing Sevu Reece shook off a bruised bone he suffered against Italy.

“He’s fine, trained full-out today and did his annual kicking competition against Fozzy I think the other day,” Plumtree said of Reece.

“I think he looked alright, and he’s got a big smile on his face when he’s walking around happy, so he’s good.”

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