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The Highlanders youngsters Aaron Smith is 'bloody excited' to watch in 2022

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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Following a disrupted 2021 season where he missed a large chunk of the All Blacks campaign due to the arrival of his second child, Highlanders captain Aaron Smith is ready and raring to go for Super Rugby Pacific 2022.

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For the 101-test veteran, the new season begins on Saturday when the Highlanders take on the Chiefs at Wakatipu Rugby Club in Queenstown, a match of which he has been named to start at halfback.

With the dawn of a new campaign comes the usual sense of nerves and optimism, both of which were feelings that Smith portrayed while speaking to media on Thursday.

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Picking the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific champions | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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Picking the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific champions | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

Above all else, though, the 33-year-old was brimming with excitement, and not just for the season that lies ahead for himself.

Smith is also eagerly anticipating the upcoming performances of his younger and less-experienced teammates, many of whom have been named to play alongside him this weekend.

Among those that Smith is keen to see back in action is his fellow halfback Folau Fakatava, the highly-touted All Blacks prospect who will play in his first official match on Saturday since he ruptured his ACL during his side’s win over the Crusaders last April.

Fakatava, who has been named on the bench for the Chiefs match, was well on track to becoming an All Black prior to that injury, but Smith said the Tongan-born 22-year-old has bounced back strongly since returning to the Highlanders camp.

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“It’s great to have Folau back, on and off the field. He’s a good man,” Smith said of Fakatava.

“He’s been around our environment a few years now. The growth I’ve seen in him, physically since his knee injury, he’s come back and you wouldn’t even know it happened. He’s in phenomenal nick.

“I just see our combo being a big part of what our game’s trying to be, playing at speed and control and attacking space for 80 minutes, and having two or three quality No 9s in our squad, that’s what we’ll look to do.

“I’m bloody excited for him to get back on the field. We all know from his last couple of years, he’s got a bright future and I’m excited to see him go and come on and do well for us on the weekend.”

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Given the quality of both halfbacks, the competition between Smith and Fakatava for the No 9 jersey is fierce, even more so considering the contrasting styles of play they both offer.

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In Smith, the Highlanders are blessed with leadership, experience, relentless energy, world-class passing and inch-perfect box-kicking precision.

Fakatava, on the other hand, is renowned for his abrasive nature on either side of the ball and is one of the best attacking halfbacks in New Zealand, leaving Highlanders head coach Tony Brown spoilt for choice.

It means both players have to be at their best throughout the week if they are to start ahead of each other come game day, but Smith said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Got to love competition. You’ve got to thrive under those conditions. Nothing better than having that and, at every level, I have that,” he said.

“I enjoy it, but also knowing [I’ve] got to do what’s right for the team as well, and then obviously just trusting what I can do and just trying to play my style of rugby. We both have different types of games, but that can be a positive impact for our team.

“[I’m] trying to help Folau with things I’m good at, and take things from Folau’s game that I need to work on, but solely staying focussed on what I can control, what I can impact.

“But, he’s become a great leader in our team and, as I said, he’s in a really good space right now.”

Fakatava’s return from injury isn’t the only storyline Smith is excited about leading into his side’s season-opener, which will also act as a chance for young wing Josh Timu to make his Highlanders debut.

The son of former All Blacks and Kiwis cross-code representative John Timu, the 24-year-old was surprisingly named to start on the wing against the Chiefs.

In doing so, Timu will become one of five players – alongside Mosese Dawai, Fetuli Paea, Jermaine Ainsley and Andrew Makalio – who will debut for the Highlanders after having already played Super Rugby for the Sunwolves in 2019.

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Brown was in charge of the former Japanese franchise when he handed Timu his first Super Rugby appearance, and said he was a fan of his high work rate after having impressed as a centre during pre-season outings against the Crusaders and Blues.

“I think they’ve both had a really good pre-season,” the Highlanders boss said of both Timu and Scott Gregory, who has been named to start in the midfield with Paea.

“They’ve probably been the form two midfielders, so we’ve sort of slotted Josh in on the wing to utilise his work-rate and his ability to execute under pressure.

“Both Scott and Josh had great pre-season games as well and were really influential last weekend.”

Smith echoed his coach’s sentiments about Timu as he expressed an eagerness to play alongside the Otago product in his home region.

“He came into our environment as a young man. He’s been away a couple of years, and to see Josh come back, he’s a hell of a player,” Smith said.

“He’s probably one of the fittest guys in our team, his engine, he never stops, and his pound-for-pound physicality, and obviously a local boy as well, from the Otago Lakes District here.

“I talked to him a bit about it yesterday and said it must be pretty cool playing for the Highlanders in where you’re from. I can’t wait to see him go, and he’s really earned this opportunity to play on Saturday. He’s someone to watch. Bright future.”

Smith, Fakatava, Timu and the Highlanders will kick their 2022 Super Rugby Pacific campaign off at 4:35pm on Saturday.

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