Scotty Stevenson: Earplugs needed when Nugget is mining for a win

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Aaron Smith, the self-appointed one-man pep-squad of the team, coaxes the troops. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Smith, the self-appointed one-man pep-squad of the team, coaxes the troops. Photo / Getty Images

The ears were ringing at Forsyth Barr Stadium last Friday night.

For 80 minutes, the screaming and cheering and yelling was relentless, a wall of noise that started up like a broken mower at the very first breakdown and was still assaulting the senses at the fulltime whistle.

The crowd was almost as boisterous, but not even the shrieking and bawling of 23,000 fans could drown out the little Highlanders halfback, Aaron Smith.

A lot has been written and spoken about the man known as Nugget. He is, to everyone who watches rugby, the finest halfback in the world. His pass we know about - crisp, quick and invariably on target - and his speed between rucks has become the stuff of legend, as has the oversized lungs in his undersized frame. Smith is an 80-minute man and very few halfbacks are that these days.

These are all fine qualities, of course - "core roles done well" being the standard song sheet the modern player sings from.

But if passing and hustle are the verse and the chorus, it's Smith's unrelenting optimism that stands as the bridge. In this instance, at least, all other halfbacks are left merely humming along.

It doesn't matter what the Highlanders are doing, it will be Smith, the self-appointed one-man pep-squad of the team, who is most excited about it. Scrum well and he'll be leaping in the air cheering for the pack; win a turnover and you can expect a healthy and hardy slap on the derriere; make a big tackle and he'll be first to give you a hug and a pat on the back. Score a try - hell, he'll almost hump your leg like a horny Jack Russell.

You have to wonder how Smith finds the time to be so happy for everyone else.

Other halfbacks attempt to be the up-guy in the side. Andy Ellis takes the role so seriously that he has picked a fight with a bigger man in almost every game he has played this season. One cannot help but admire his pluck, but Angry Ellis' channelling of Jimmy Cowan (and there's a delicious irony in that phrase) serves only to attract reinforcements. Smith is the reinforcement.

You have to wonder how Smith finds the time to be so happy for everyone else. He has a big enough job to do at the Highlanders without taking a special interest in the work of his teammates. No team runs an attack structure so well off a halfback, and no halfback is more fundamental to his side's ability to score tries, which is something the Highlanders are trying to do every time they have the ball.

Most halfbacks would be happy to get to the breakdown and get their hands on the ball. Smith isn't happy unless he's dished up two dozen fist bumps, and smacked all eight forwards' backsides by the end of the first quarter. That's dedication to team spirit right there. And isn't that the thing most often talked about when it comes to the Highlanders?

Smith, you see, knows the secret. Rugby matches at this level are not about 40-minute halves, or 20-minute quarters. They are about all the tiny moments in the game, the small victories that add up to big outcomes. Like the scrum penalties you win on your own line when you have one man in the bin, or the consecutive big tackles made in open play just when your team needs a boost, or when you slap the ball out of the hands of an opposition player just as he's about to score a try.

The Highlanders celebrate these things, and no one celebrates them more than Smith.

So when you watch him play, feel free to admire his pass. Celebrate his speed between rucks, for it is based on unrivalled vision rather than unrivalled pace. Marvel at his capacity to go the distance in games, because there are few who can last as long as he can.

Most of all, though, watch closely as he emboldens his team. Look at him coax, urge, press and endorse them. Look at how he responds to every hint of Highlanders' ascendancy. And when you do, make sure you have some earplugs.

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- NZ Herald

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