When Aaron Smith runs out onto the field to take on the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday, he will become the most-capped Highlanders player of all-time.
In doing so, he will take the record from franchise icon Ben Smith, a long-time teammate at both Super Rugby and international level who played 153 times for the southern franchise between 2009 and 2019.
It’s a feat that the 32-year-old never thought he’d achieve when he arrived at the Highlanders with only three years of provincial experience and a few Maori All Blacks caps to his name a decade ago.
Since then, Smith has grown into one of the greatest, if not the best, halfback of all-time, having secured a World Cup crown, a Super Rugby title and is narrowing in on his 100th test for the All Blacks.
Those accolades didn’t come easily, though, as Smith acknowledged upon reflection of his journey to what is set to be a record-breaking outing this weekend.
In fact, the biggest challenge he faced when he first came to Dunedin from his native Palmerston North as a fresh-faced 22-year-old was overtaking an incumbent All Black in the form of Jimmy Cowan.
As Smith alluded to while speaking to media on Monday, the prospect of usurping someone who had firmly established himself in the national set-up was a daunting task, and it was for that reason Smith felt content with his status as a Super Rugby player.
However, a message from then-head coach Jamie Joseph, the man responsible for guiding the Highlanders to their only Super Rugby championship, changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.
“The first year, I think I went down with that attitude of I’m happy to be here and compete, but I knew Jimmy was the guy,” Smith said.
“At the end of that year, Jamie Joseph really challenged me about, like, ‘You’re not just that guy. I’ll pick the best halfback for this team and if that’s you, that’s you. Just because Jimmy’s an All Black, a 100-game player, doesn’t mean you can’t start’.
“I think that really lit a fire under me around, ‘Okay, well maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way’.
“I think the way I showed up for 2012 or end of 2011 after Mitre 10 [Cup], had a real good pre-season and then [was] able to compete with Jimmy after he’d won the World Cup.
“Jamie Jo was pretty bold about giving me opportunities, and then I’d just tried to take them with both hands and it ended up being a really great year for myself.”
"There were bigger prizes out there for some of the Crusaders’ better players and, try as coach Todd Blackadder might, that never changed."
– Hamish Bidwell weighs in on some of the remarkable feats of Scott Robertson. https://t.co/iXSsd6lPP1
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
Smith added that competing with a player of the ilk of Cowan, a Super Rugby centurion and World Cup-winning All Black, for a place in the starting lineup on a weekly basis drove him to become the best version of himself as a player.
That led to an All Blacks debut in 2012, but he never thought it would amount to him becoming the most-capped Highlanders player of all-time, though.
Smith credits both milestones, of becoming an All Black and the most experienced Highlander ever, to the ambition Joseph instilled in him during the early stages of their time together at the club.
“When I played my first [season], I was like, ‘Yeah, this is pretty cool’, but I was just rolling with it that first year to be honest, enjoying it,” Smith said.
“I just moved to Dunedin. From Palmerston North, Dunedin’s a pretty big jump of culture, cafes, the social life, everything was just like a big shock to me, and then, obviously, I was going to Australia and South Africa.
“It was really cool, and then the shock of Jamie Joseph saying, ‘You can be Jimmy Cowan. You can be an All Black, if you get some things right, you change your habits around your training, you get fitter’.
“I already think I had that competitive edge and that will to want to be good, but I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think, not in that first year anyway, but after that, I owe a lot to Jamie and Brownie [Tony Brown] around bringing out the best of me.”
Smith pointed to a particular conversation he had with Joseph after he had been cited for a bad tackle during his maiden campaign with the Highlanders as a real turning point in his playing career.
“I remember getting in trouble with a tip-tackle on Toby Morland one time, and I had to go to the judiciary with Jamie in 2011, and on that flight, he said to me, ‘I believe your game could transgress to the test level, to the All Blacks’.
“It was a bit of a shock. I wanted to believe him, and excited to, but knew that I’d actually have to change some things, especially around my eating habits, my drinking habits, and, at the time, just my work ethic.
“I was talented and young, but I never did more than I needed to. I never was the fittest guy, I never was the strongest guy for my position or anything, I was just enough.
“I’d made Super [Rugby] and I was happy with that at the time, but, I think as I went to that Mitre 10 Cup, I had a full season of Super, had an alright year at Mitre 10 and then I really wanted to take advantage of what Jamie had challenged me with.
“I got as fit and as strong as I’d ever been at that time, and had a really good pre-season and really wanted that jersey, and I think it really unlocked something that I hadn’t seen.
“I had seen belief, seen my ability to be able to play a different style of rugby that other No 9s weren’t doing at the time and just really fed off that.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
Without those words of inspiration from Joseph, it isn’t unrealistic to suggest Smith may never have become the player he is today.
The player he has become is one whose game is built around an exceptional passing game, immense work rate, strong leadership and a clear, boisterous passion for the game.
It may be difficult, then, for his fans and admirers to comprehend that Smith believes there is also an element of luck about the way in which career has transpired in spite of those aforementioned attributes that have made him as good as he is.
According to Smith, playing regularly under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, which replaced the out-dated Carisbrook as the home of the Highlanders in 2012, as well as under the tutelage of master tactician Tony Brown have all contributed to his successes.
“The stadium came along and a lot of things fell at my lap that were very brilliant around the way we wanted to play rugby with Brownie’s game plan and the likes,” Smith said.
“I was just lucky that that game plan suited the Highlanders. If we were still playing at Carisbrook, would my game [have] been as well[-suited] playing in the dewy weather? Or would a more combative halfback have fitted?
“But, having a roof, playing an up-tempo style of game – we had a smaller forward pack and then a nippier halfback that just wanted to keep pushing the tempo of play – I think it just really suited me.
“With the athletes we had at the time and the way we played, it suited me to a tee and ended up getting me a shot at the All Blacks, which is, obviously, the ultimate goal.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
Now a seasoned veteran and one of the most important players in the Highlanders’ set-up, Smith is calling on his younger teammates to follow in his footsteps and demand more of themselves rather than being content as just Super Rugby players.
That includes Folau Fakatava, the highly-touted young halfback who is set to go head-to-head with Smith for a starting spot through until 2023 in a scenario that mirrors Smith’s battle with Cowan for the No 9 jersey 10 years ago.
“The shoe’s on the other foot now,” Smith laughed.
“I’ve got Folau coming at my toes hard, so it’s a nice feeling, but I’m really happy Folau’s staying and it’s great for our club that we can attract talent like that and keep it, but also that drive to get this milestone, but also push for more.”
If there was ever a man to overtake Ben Smith, who embodies the very essence of the Highlanders culture, as the club’s most-capped player, it is appropriate that it is Aaron Smith who takes that title.
That’s because, as evidenced by his comments, so few people are as blatantly passionate about committing to a cause as Smith is about wanting the best for the Dunedin franchise.
“It’s not the end for me, for sure. I’ve committed to rugby in New Zealand for the next three years, so my drive is definitely around wanting our club to be the best we can be,” he said.
“I want to see other Highlanders players make the next level in the All Blacks or make other countries if that’s the way they play. I want our players to push for more. I want to see guys playing for the All Blacks or for Samoa or for Tonga.
“I don’t just want our boys to be happy playing Super Rugby, and I want to keep attracting young talent and seeing the Highlanders prosper in the future, and that’s why I committed to the Highlanders.
“I want to see our club be respected and be competing for titles every year.”
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