New Zealand Rugby has successfully fought off interest from overseas club to secure star halfback Aaron Smith with a two-year contract extension that will see him stay in the country until the end of the 2021 season.
Locking in Smith for another two seasons is a victory that should be celebrated within NZR circles as the lure of signing big-money deals in Europe and Japan has proven to be difficult for some of the country’s leading players to turn down in recent times.
The Highlanders have already felt the burn of the pound, Euro and yen as Ben Smith (Pau), Waisake Naholo (London Irish), Liam Squire (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Luke Whitelock (Pau) and Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi Dynaboars) have all committed themselves to foreign clubs following this year’s World Cup.
Other high-profile stars set to depart New Zealand at the end of this year include Kieran Read (Toyota Verblitz), Owen Franks (Northampton), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Toulon), Jordan Taufua (Leicester Tigers), Matt Proctor (Northampton) and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Wasps).
82-test veteran Smith said it was an easy decision to re-sign with NZR given his passion for both the All Blacks and the Highlanders, but that didn’t stop offshore clubs from trying to persuade him to leave.
“If I’m honest, me and Warren, my player manager, we sort of talked a little bit about it,” Smith told RugbyPass when asked about interest from overseas teams shortly after the announcement of his re-signing.
“I let him do the bargaining stuff, but I was very keen on staying and cementing my future here. That’s probably why it took a while, because they [weren’t] a really big threat for me to want to go.
“We got a couple of offers, and one was pretty close, that gave us something that me and Teagan [Smith’s partner] had talked about, but I’ve got some dreams and things I want to achieve in New Zealand. That was a real big driver for me.”
When asked to elaborate on where the tempting offer came from, Smith hinted towards an unnamed Japanese club, stating: “They eat sushi, maybe.”
Regardless of where in the world he was offered to go, no offer could beat the prospect of becoming a father, husband, business owner and accomplishing goals in the international arena for the All Blacks, all of which were motives for Smith to stay put.
“It might have taken a while to make the decision, but [I] didn’t really want to go,” he said.
“A lot of things are lining up off-field, which is great for us. Me and my partner have a gym here in Dunedin, we’re expecting a little baby, and I’m not really ready to leave, so no, it didn’t really come into my mind, but I’m glad it’s sorted out now, and I can focus on trying to have a really big year this year.”
Prior to Smith’s baby, wedding and business plans, 2019 was already shaping up to be a significant year for him as he prepares to help defend New Zealand’s back-to-back world titles in five months’ time.
That preparation took a hit last week, though, as the 30-year-old succumbed to an ankle injury in the Highlanders’ 33-26 loss to the Blues that was initially expected to rule him out of action for up to six weeks.
However, Smith, who donned a moon boot as he spoke to reporters on Monday, is adamant he will be back in action within a month’s time.
“It feels pretty good,” he said.
“The boot’s mainly so I can move around as fast as I want to move. I don’t think that it will be six weeks, but, with the big year that we’ve got ahead, I’ll be doing what the medical staff recommend and not try to rush it, but I definitely want to get back out there and help my teammates.”
Offsetting the short-term loss of Smith is the return of key midfielder Rob Thompson, who hasn’t featured for the Highlanders since sustaining an ankle injury during his side’s 36-31 win over the Reds in February.
Highlanders assistant coach Glenn Delaney confirmed the 27-year-old is in line for selection for this week’s clash against the Hurricanes in Dunedin.
“Rob’s back at training, so it’s nice to have him back on the field properly,” Delaney said.
“It’s been a while since he’s been available, so looks like we’ve got a fairly full deck to pick from.”
Watch – Michael Cheika talks to RugbyPass:
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