What does New Zealand's greatest-ever halfback's new contract mean for Folau Fakatava?
Aaron Smith’s re-signing with New Zealand Rugby will be applauded by all and sundry – and rightly so.
Smith is perhaps the greatest halfback that New Zealand has ever seen. The speed and accuracy of his pass is second to none, his fitness is exceptional and there are few better than instructing and motivating a forward pack than the man affectionately known as Nugget.
There’s understandably some concern surrounding the All Blacks taking three ageing halfbacks to the next Rugby World Cup, with no obvious long-term replacements as yet, but few will have issues with Smith wearing the No 9 jersey come France 2023 if he’s still performing to the same level that he is today.
Given that the 32-year-old has shown no signs of slowing down in recent times, it’s looking more and more likely that Smith will be New Zealand’s premier halfback for a third world cup running.
Against the Crusaders on Saturday, it was a trademark pearler of a pass from Smith that gave Shannon Frizell the space to dive over for the Highlanders’ first try of the night.
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If Smith can continue to offer up the ball on the platter for his teammates as he did in that moment, then the All Blacks will travel to France with one of, if not the best halfback in World Rugby – though Antoine Dupont may have something to say about that.
What does Smith’s re-signing mean for the rest of the No 9s across New Zealand who are eyeing up a potential spot in the national side?
In short, it means that there won’t be any free passes.
TJ Perenara, for all his talents, is not in the same league as Smith when it comes to the core responsibilities of a halfback. Neither is new Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber. They’re fantastic players, but the next young No 9 with a bullet pass and pace to boot would fancy their chances of quickly scaling the ranks and taking over as New Zealand’s first-choice – much in the same way as Smith did in 2012.
Smith earned a call-up to the All Blacks just one year after he made his Super Rugby debut and in his first season wearing black, he cemented himself as the then-world champions’ starting halfback.
High praise from All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith. ? https://t.co/AgLOfR7QCT
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 11, 2021
It was a meteoric rise, but Smith was competing against the likes of Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu – players less known for their pace and delivery and more respected for other aspects of their game.
That’s the situation that New Zealand would again be going through in a post-Nugget world and while it worked out well in 2012, there are no guarantees. Competition breeds success and with Smith staying on, the nation’s up and comers know that they’ll need to be at the top of their game in order to usurp the king.
And while NZR’s re-signing of Smith should be applauded, it should also be somewhat expected.
Yes, Smith could take an off-shore offer and chase the money – who would begrudge him that after almost a century of caps for the All Blacks? Realistically, however, when New Zealand fell to England at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Smith likely set his sights on redemption – and that can only come in France in two years’ time.
If Fakatava wants to be an All Black, he has three options.
If he stays at the Highlanders, he has to either perform so well off the bench that Ian Foster and the All Blacks coaches can see his talents and readiness for international rugby, even if he’s not a Super Rugby starter, or he has to ascend even further, and actually knock Smith off his perch. Is that latter option likely, given the limited minutes that Fakatava will again be faced with for the coming three seasons?
Smith managed it, taking over from Cowan at the Highlanders in 2012 – but we’ve already covered the differences there.
"Speed is the great strength of Smith’s game. Why, then, would you ever replace that guy with TJ Perenara?"
– Hamish Bidwell says the All Blacks halfback selection needs to be reviewed if they want the backs to fire. #AUSvNZL #TriNations #BledisloeCup https://t.co/yn5mVM354y
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 9, 2020
The alternative, of course, is to take his wares elsewhere.
Who, amongst the New Zealand teams, could use a man with the undeniable potential of Fakatava?
We can probably rule out the Chiefs and the Crusaders, who are well stocked with experienced options as well as some up-and-coming stars. Even if the likes of Brad Weber or Bryn Hall call time on their NZ careers, there are others who have been biding their time who are ready to step into starting roles.
That’s not to say that Fakatava couldn’t force his way into a No 9 jersey at either team – but it’s difficult to imagine that the Chiefs or Crusaders would be willing and able to really commit to the transfer when there are other positions that need better bolstering.
That leaves the Blues and the Hurricanes.
Fakatava, of course, has made a name for himself with Hawke’s Bay in the Mitre 10 Cup and there will forever be questions regarding how the Hurricanes let the prodigious talent slip from their grasp.
TJ Perenara is set to return from Japan next year and will be hoping to resume his place in the No 9 jersey but behind him, the cupboard is a little bit bare. Jamie Booth is the next cab off the ranks, but there’s no telling how significantly he’ll be impacted by the serious knee injury that’s keeping him off the field at present.
Fakatava, in the space of less than a year, could be the starting halfback in Wellington. Certainly, he’d have greater luck seizing power from Perenara than uprooting Aaron Smith.
The @HurricanesRugby team relied on TJ Perenara to shift into the first receiver role in the latter stages of matches last season. That means they have lost more than just a very good halfback. #SuperRugbyAotearoa #HURvBLUhttps://t.co/9yOoncgx0Y
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 25, 2021
Further north, Fakatava could have an even cleaner run at things, with Finlay Christie, Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru sharing duties in the No 9 jersey at the Blues without any of the trio ever really locking it down.
Then there’s the wild card option – Moana Pasifika. Fakatava represented the composite Pacific Islands side in their inaugural fixture against the Maori All Blacks last year and could thrive in an environment that specifically caters to Pasifika players. Fakatava was born and raised in Tonga, only moving to New Zealand in his mid-teens, and would no doubt appreciate the cultural benefits of linking up with a side that should be joining Super Rugby in 2022.
In short, however, Fakatava is realistically in exactly the same position he was prior to Smith’s signing. He knows that it’s going to take something special to take over from the current All Blacks No 9 and all signs already pointed to Smith continuing his legacy with the Highlanders.
For Fakatava, the brief hasn’t changed. Bide his time, and throw everything into the opportunities he gets off the bench in 2021.
With Aaron Smith signing on until the end of 2023, it’s probably fair to expect that his term in New Zealand and with the Highlanders is now coming to a close. He has almost three years to prepare for what will likely be his All Blacks sign-off and you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll be doing everything he can to get his nation over the line come the next Rugby World Cup.
Smith has nothing left to prove, however. In over a century of matches for the Highlanders, and not many fewer for the All Blacks, Aaron Smith has shown the breadth and depth of skills that most professional halfbacks could only dream of possessing. Whatever happens in the coming years, Smith will sign off as New Zealand’s greatest-ever halfback – and perhaps the best that the world has ever seen.
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