All Black halfback Aaron Smith is fighting through a rough patch in his impressive test debut season.
He was troubled against the Wallabies in Brisbane and the Italians got into him yesterday at the impressive Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Not that Smith got much protection from his forwards or necessary vigilance from referee Alain Rolland. Several times he was cleaned up when the Italians came from the side or early. But they hovered and took their chances with Rolland's judgment around the rucks and tackled ball areas.
"I think the ref wanted to get a bit of flow and was letting a bit go and they weren't really trying to go into the rucks to get the ball they were just trying to menace it," Smith said.
"They were coming around and kicking at the ball, but ... the onus is on the ball carrier and he was losing it and our cleaners were going heads down and not hitting the right threats."
Smith reckoned he was barking orders at the pack which went unheeded, which meant Italy were allowed to come through and disrupt.
"I definitely gave them a good drumming but I was playing the same drums for a bit there. I was saying, 'Help me out here boys, give me a bit of protection'," he said.
Smith had his left knee strapped after the test but the medics thought it was just bruising and not a problem in his joust with Piri Weepu to start the next test against Wales.
The halfback was rested for the last quarter and thought much of the early hard work drew the dividends with three late tries.
"It felt like we created a lot but did not finish, which is something we do pretty well. The little things weren't working but that's footy and it is never going to be a perfect game.
"That's one thing we [learned] from the Scotland game, that you can't just break them down every time. In the first half we were a bit guilty of trying to score from anywhere. We showed them a lack of respect."
The All Black forwards failed to go north-south in their work and the backs struggled for long periods as they were pushed east and west.
Perversely, Smith said he enjoyed the struggle; that was what he expected from test rugby. It never should be easy and there were always problems which had to be unravelled. International rugby was rarely an armchair ride.
He did not want to throw Hail Mary passes towards first five-eighths Aaron Cruden and sometimes had to take the hit instead.By Wynne Gray Email Wynne