Can Aaron Smith get back to his best form?

By Gregor Paul in Rome

There's a bit of a fix-up job to be done on Aaron Smith. Something is not right with him. That much is obvious.

The last two months have had just one high spot - a compelling performance against South Africa in Christchurch. He was brilliant that night - relying exclusively on his instincts he passed and ran without a care in the world.

It was Smith at his natural best. He didn't stop to think or deliberate, he put his hands on the ball and swept it away and the All Blacks flowed.

But that performance came after he had been subbed early the week before - taken off when he allowed his frustration to get the better of him and seriously irked referee Craig Joubert to the point where the South African official warned Smith that he would be carded if he didn't stop talking back.

His performance in Christchurch was a stunning response but of course as much as he acted without thinking that night, so too did he act without thinking the next day at the airport.

Quite where he is mentally or indeed physically is hard to tell. In his come back game in Chicago, he was tentative, inaccurate and loose - things he's hardly ever been since he made his début in 2012.

Some of that can be attributed to the pressure under which the All Blacks' forwards were being put. It's never easy for a halfback to play behind a back that isn't dominating.

Some of it could be attributed to his time off. He hadn't played since early September so maybe it was just rust caused by inactivity. With 45 minutes behind him, he'll be back to his old self. Maybe. But that can't be assumed.

There is no doubt that Smith is the best halfback the All Blacks have. No one disputed that before his indiscretion - his influence within and importance to the team was universally recognised.

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Perenara has played well in Smith's absence but the pecking order hasn't changed. An in-form Smith is still the preferred option ahead of an in form Perenara so the challenge for the coaching team is to bring Smith back to his best form.

The old school way would be to now put the heat on Smith behind closed doors: for the coaches to let him know he had one last chance to come right or he would be making way for TJ Perenara.

Apply the pressure and see if he can respond. Maybe the coaches will go down that road with him, but more likely they won't because it doesn't feel like Smith is the sort of character who responds well to the stick.

Instead, it's probably a time for the coaches to be supportive - build their man up not knock him down. It's a given that every All Black knows his place is on the line. That never changes so threatening Smith with an 'or else' sort of statement is an empty motivational tool.

What might work better is starting him against Italy. Give him 50 minutes against a lower ranked opponent where he can hopefully reconnect with his true self and get back into the swing of playing his natural game.

All players are slaves to their confidence and the All Blacks need Smith to be at the top of his game for the Dublin re-match.

Much has been made of the impact Perenara had in Chicago - but imagine how much more effective he could have been had Smith delivered 45 high-tempo, accurate minutes beforehand.

- NZ Herald

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