'They're the future': Aaron Smith's pledge to keep New Zealand's top talent at the Highlanders
Coming onto the field in place of Kayne Hammington in the 72nd minute was 20-year-old debutant James Arscott.
Earmarked as a highly-touted player while coming through the ranks at Otago Boys’ High School, Arscott made his first foray into professional rugby as he played out the final eight minutes of the match to become just the 310th Highlander.
While there is plenty of work to be done before Arscott, who is acting as squad cover due to Folau Fakatava’s season-ending knee injury, becomes a regular within the Highlanders’ set-up, his Super Rugby debut could be the springboard for a long career at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
That’s at least what Smith envisions for Arscott and the franchise of which he has been part of since moving south in 2011.
“Whiskey’s a great kid,” Smith told reporters of Arscott on Wednesday. “The last four years, I’ve gotten to know him. I saw him at Otago Boys’ and did a lot of passing with him when he was younger – well, a little bit younger, he’s still a young man.
“I built a relationship with him off the field. We play golf together, we hang out, we talk a lot about goal-setting and stuff. He’s a rugby nut, which is great. I’m like that, I’m a code-head to the core.
“We just have a lot of similarities around what we’re interested in. Obviously I’m at a different stage of my life. He’s a young man and a student, surfing and stuff, but the love for rugby, the passing, to want to get better, it’s there.”
Smith’s passion for the Highlanders is reflected not only by the way in which he speaks of Arscott, but also by his commitment to ensure the next generation of New Zealand’s top-class players become Highlanders.
Developing an off-field relationship with Arscott is indicative of that, but the Otago Boys’ alumni isn’t the only person Smith is looking to mould into a future Highlanders star.
In fact, Arscott is just one of many promising halfbacks on the franchise’s books, with All Blacks prospect Fakatava headlining the slew of talented youngsters at Highlanders HQ.
Behind him and Arscott are Highlanders U20 duo Noah Hotham, a New Zealand Schools representative last year, and Nathan Hastie, who was recently selected for the New Zealand U20 side.
Players like those are the ones Smith wants to play an active role in integrating into the Highlanders’ system to establish long-term success at the club.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 11, 2021
“I try to build that relationship with all my halfbacks, with Folau, Kayne and then obviously Whiskey’s new,” Smith said.
“To be honest, any young halfback in Dunedin I try to show interest in, [like] Nathan Hastie, a young coming through at the moment who’s in the NZ U20s programme.
“I really want the Highlanders to do well and I know that the local kids at King’s [High School], Otago Boys’, John McGlashan [College], they’re the future Highlanders we need, so anyone really good, we try to really involve in our system because [there’s] nothing worse than seeing a local schoolboy hero playing at another team.
“In particular with halfbacks, I always try to take interest if they want help or want to have a chat, I’m definitely available, always.”
Given Smith’s playing career with the Highlanders is likely to end once his current contract expires in 2023, it’s no surprise the 32-year-old is looking ahead to the future to make sure the franchise can thrive in his absence.
The Highlanders are still recovering from 2019’s mass exodus that saw Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Elliot Dixon, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Tom Franklin, Richard Buckman, Matt Faddes, Tevita Li and Aki Seiuli all depart.
That left Smith as one of only four All Blacks and by far the most experienced player within the Highlanders’ ranks.
With that status, Smith has become a leading light on the park for the Highlanders, but it has become apparent he is just as influential off the field as he tries to make sure his side won’t be so depleted when he eventually calls time on his playing days in Dunedin.
“You’ve got to be open to opportunities of attracting young talent too, so it goes both ways,” Smith said.
“We’ve got a couple of guys in our pre-academy who have come from Hamilton or Christchurch, so it’s about that too, and obviously attracting talent that your team needs.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 11, 2021
“It’s something, as an older player, you think about, ‘Oh yeah, it only takes a couple years and this guy could be the guy’, so showing that pathway, trying to get them involved in our culture early to see if they can fall in love with it, that’s the key.”
However, Smith is aware of the challenges that come with recruiting New Zealand’s most promising youngsters away from the clutches of rival clubs such as the Blues and Crusaders.
“I think coming in for a couple of days to look at the environment doesn’t give you a taste of what we’re about,” he said.
“If they come down for a pre-season and enjoy the vibe [it might be different], but most teams roll the red carpet out for some of the hot prospects, if you look at the big teams with their budgets and their facilities and stuff like that.
“People that come down to us, maybe we can only attract that talent that is not well-sought after, not a battler tag, but the Crusaders or the Blues, those teams go after the best of the best.
“They just load up on the talent because they sell the dream of, ‘You play here, you can make the All Blacks’, and that’s fair because they create All Blacks. It’s a definite.
“How many of them do the Crusaders have at the moment? Pretty much 13 or 14 guys have played for the All Blacks in that one squad.
“At the Blues at the moment, there’s about 10, so as a young fella, that must be a really easy prospect [to buy into], or if your parents are saying that.”
In spite of those hurdles, Smith believes the Highlanders can offer a team culture and a roofed stadium that no other team in the country can match, and he hopes that can play its part in luring New Zealand’s next crop of stars to Dunedin.
“In saying that, playing in the stadium, trying to become part of our culture and, if positionally it works, that’s the key [to signing and keeping young talent].”
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