It was hard to ignore the look on Jimmy Cowan's face. As the All Black halfback sat on the bench throughout the Highlanders' rousing victory against the Crusaders on Saturday, it was as though he was peering into the future. He would not have liked the signs.
His team would soak up the win against their neighbours, but Cowan's credentials have taken a hit from young teammate Aaron Smith.
This is the bloke Jamie Joseph picked from the backblocks for the New Zealand Maori side a couple of years ago and then introduced to Super 15 rugby last season. On Saturday, he was the sparky distributor behind a gnarly Highlanders pack, snapping out a stream of passes to either flank of the new Dunedin Stadium.
Smith didn't indulge in a two-step tango or a three-step stutter before delivering passes. He flipped out his deliveries like a pancake maker with a hot pan.
Sometimes Smith's passes missed their target, but usually the pace of his pass gave his teammates time to get across the advantage line.
One long, flat beauty put Phil Burleigh deep into a hole while John Hardie made similar inroads when he motored up the middle.
If you could combine the qualities of the halfbacks on show at Dunedin, new All Black coach Steve Hansen would be on to a winner.
Andy Ellis runs much of the play for the Crusaders and also likes to advise referees about their match management. He gets away with that counsel as most of what he suggests is done with a smile or a quip and is usually on the money.
The 28-year-old has been around a bit, he is a World Cup winner and is a bloke with a fair bit of balance about his life. His game is solid and dependable, he makes strong decisions.If there is any reservation it would be that he may lack a soupcon of flair and a racy delivery.
He's not alone there, as many current players have developed or been coached into a shuffle away from the breakdowns before letting go of the Gilbert.
It's hard to think of any halfback since Graeme Bachop in the 90s who has snapped passes away with the consistent sort of speed he created. Now Smith suggests he is heading in that direction.
In between the All Black ranks have been dominated by Justin Marshall, Byron Kelleher, Piri Weepu and Cowan - they have all accrued more than 50 tests. Each was an international warrior who competed with furious determination and a wide array of skills. Kelleher and Weepu might have shaded the others for the speed of their delivery, but it was rarely swept away without delay.
All three World Cup halfbacks, Weepu, Ellis and Cowan, have returned to the Super 15 hustings this season, but the rising threat is coming from Smith and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who bring different skills packages for the new All Black panel to consider.By Wynne Gray Email Wynne