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'Aaron Smith changed the theory of the way the halfback should modernize the game'

By Ned Lester
Antoine Dupont and Aaron Smith squaring off at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

The Professor, Sir Wayne Smith, has spared no superlatives when reflecting on the impact of Aaron Smith in an upcoming TV series.

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Smith’s influence in both the domestic and the international arena was subsequently discussed by former All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall, who added further context to how Smith paved the way for today’s No. 9s and the game in general.

Sir Wayne Smith even went as far as to say the halfback was the best player in the world as recently as two years ago, ranking the Kiwi over his French counterpart Antoine Dupont.

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“The best thing I can say about Aaron is, about two years ago they were putting together a list of current players, the top 50 in the world. I put Aaron Smith down as number one. As the most effective, game-changing, best player in the world at that time,” he said in the upcoming All Blacks Game Changers series.

“Everyone else was putting Antoine Dupont down as number one. I said yeah, he’s a good player, but how many competitions has he won? He’s got a few at Toulouse but how many major titles has he won with France?

“Aaron Smith has won all of them.”

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It’s a bold call given Dupont was coming off a World Rugby Player of the Year award at that time and it was two years ago that France won the Six Nations.

Smith won the Rugby World Cup in 2015 when he was 26, the same age Dupont was at the Rugby World Cup in France last year when the hosts were eliminated in the quarter-final by eventual champions South Africa.

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The distinction between team success and individual success wasn’t addressed in the preview clip but was followed up on by Justin Marshall, someone who certainly boasts a fair amount of knowledge about the halfback position.

“I think Aaron Smith changed the game and changed the theory of the way the halfback should modernize the game,” Marshall reacted on The Breakdown.

“There was a period that I was involved with where the game was quite slow around the breakdown, where the five-second rule wasn’t in play and you had to be a lot more creative. You could do that with your own physicality or use steps to try and bring forwards into it to create and generate momentum, to generate fast ball when it was static.

“The five-second rule was perfect for Aaron Smith and the type of player that he was. To come in and have the speed of the clearance, the ability to have vision, have pace.

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“The game needed someone like him to say ‘This is how we’re going to speed the game up and this is how we’re going to do it’. I don’t think anybody in the modern day has replicated what he brought to that jersey.”

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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