Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Why Aaron Smith is so good

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All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Herald columnist Justin Marshall takes a look at what makes All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith so good.

Aaron Smith's unique attributes

1. The traditional halfback running lines:

The traditional line that a halfback would take, once he's got to the breakdown, would see him basically run across where his attacking backline is coming from. Which is the way that it's always been, simply because they need to follow the ball.
Their role is about clearing it from the breakdown and following the ball so they're ready for the next stage of play. If the ball gets spilled backwards or there's contact behind the advantage line, the halfback is there.

That's the traditional way to play - it's not entirely a sweeping role, it's more just following the passage of the ball.

2. What Aaron Smith does differently:

The All Blacks' strength is the ability to play at tempo and speed that other teams just can't play at. A lot of the way they're able to do that is how quickly they can move the ball from contact - from a ruck they're moving the ball on before the opposition defence has time to get organised. Aaron Smith is vital in that because I believe he's the fittest in the country and the best in the country at getting to the breakdown.

Smith doesn't follow the ball - basically he's predicting where he feels the breakdown will eventuate. The way that teams are now coached, they plan three or four phases ahead. Smith knows, because of the call given to him, what area the backs are going to.

He's not prepared to accept that they're not going to achieve that outcome, so he's taking a very aggressive line to breakdowns. By doing that, he's cutting down two-to-three seconds of transition time that it would take other halfbacks playing the more familiar role. That might not seem like a lot but, in a rugby game, that's saving him a hell of a lot of time.

The only conundrum he's faced with is if the backs do spill the ball or don't execute properly. But if that happens, he's still inside the ball. He's on the inside path as it's moving so, even though he's ahead, he can still adjust and go on a direct route back to where the ball eventuates.

3. The benefits of Smith's approach:

Since Smith's at the breakdown so quickly he's there before a lot of the loose forwards and, because of that, he's not having to deal with fringe players being disruptive.
It also means the players who are receiving the ball from the next phase aren't waiting for him. They can see him and they're on the move the whole time, instead of going from a standing start.

That's 100 per cent execution of the game plan and if all runs perfectly. As we have seen in games where the All Blacks have achieved that - Ellis Park last year or the Australian game - it's basically unstoppable. Teams can't live with that. There are instances when for whatever reason - like weather conditions, which could be the case in Napier - it doesn't work as well. But that's the ultimate way they want to play, and the way Smith plays his game suits the way the All Blacks want to play down to the ground.

Now he's got that system in place, it's also incredibly helpful to his running game. Because he's so quick to the breakdown, defenders aren't getting into a good position to deal with him when he decides to run. So now we're seeing his running game becoming a real threat in the All Blacks' attacking arsenal.

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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