Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Electric duo have sparked winning run

Aaron Smith has been a revelation at halfback. Photo / NZ Herald
Aaron Smith has been a revelation at halfback. Photo / NZ Herald

Those with a big picture focus will know there are two factors that have pushed the 2012 side beyond their predecessor: the arrival of Aaron Smith at halfback and the booming right boot of Israel Dagg.

That's it in a nutshell - the two reasons the All Blacks are a better side this year than 2011.

Smith has been outrageously good - the type of halfback the public thought they'd never see again. It has been an age since a player of his ilk emerged - strangely so given the core function of a No 9 is to clear the ball.

But for one reason or another New Zealand hasn't seen things that way since Graeme Bachop retired and instead has been a serial producer of bigger, auxiliary loose forwards whose defensive clout has been impressive.

Smith is a passer, a runner and a revelation. His accuracy and speed of delivery has allowed the All Blacks to play at that damaging tempo where opponents can never breathe.

Daniel Carter, or whoever is first receiver, is rewarded a bonus half metre on account of Smith's ability to flick the ball off the turf without hesitation. He's also an aerobic freak - more than capable of getting to every ruck ahead of the ball.

Simply put, the All Blacks couldn't play the way they did in Buenos Aires and Soweto had Piri Weepu started. The All Blacks need Smith almost as much as they need Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Carter and it is scarcely believable that he began the season as the little-known second choice at the Highlanders.

That Smith's advanced so far so quickly is a pleasant rather than massive surprise to his former Feilding High School First XV coach Rick Francis.

"Aaron came into the First XV in year 11 and we could all see just how talented he was. He played first-five that season before we shifted him to halfback. I'm a traditionalist and believe that the primary role of a halfback is to clear the ball and Aaron was always outstanding at that. He was a natural ball player and he always had this game awareness and vision as well as being a bit of an imp with something to say."

If there was a concern about Smith, it lay around his size and ability to defend effectively. At 1.71m and 82kg he's dwarfed by the 1.86m, 98kg Cowan and considerably lighter than Weepu who flirts with 96kg.

Thankfully, neither Francis nor Manawatu and New Zealand under-20 coach Dave Rennie felt the need to alter Smith physically. To build him up would have ruined him, robbed him of the speed and agility that was the secret to his game. Instead Rennie spent hours with Smith honing his tackling technique to ensure he had the confidence and ability to defend his channel.

"I don't think Aaron's size is much different to how he was at school," says Francis. "He's obviously a bit stronger and worked a bit on that but it's his technique that is so good and he looks a good defensive player now as well. I watched him play South Africa and then the Australians play Argentina and I thought he was light years ahead of the other halfbacks on show."

It's not just on attack that Smith's delivery has been beneficial. It's possibly not realised that the All Blacks of the last eight years or so have endured a disturbingly high charge-down rate from defensive clearances. That hasn't been a problem this season and, as much as Smith's passing has been a factor, so too has the willingness of Dagg to call for the ball.

The fullback has greater length in his punting than even Carter and several times this season he's taken the All Blacks out of their 22 and deep into opposition territory with one kick.

That safety of having a left-foot/right-foot kicking combination available has been invaluable and not just for the obvious value of relieving the pressure. The secondary effect has been to make teams reluctant to kick long, knowing that Dagg can return it prodigious distances.

The All Blacks have had fullbacks who can run and run - Mils Muliaina, Christian Cullen and John Gallagher - but when was the last time they had one with such a good kicking repertoire?

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 17 Apr 2014 08:25:56 Processing Time: 603ms