Aaron Smith, who will celebrate his 100th match for the Highlanders tonight has endured plenty of highs and lows in his career, but among the toughest on the field will have been in 2013 when his side started the season with eight losses and won only three all year.

That was the year when the team, then coached by Jamie Joseph, lost to the Cheetahs and Reds at home, and were beaten away by the Kings. It was the worst of times for the southern franchise, which puts into stark relief their achievement in winning the competition two years later with a remarkable grand final performance against the Hurricanes in Wellington.

Halfback Smith, who will reach his milestone against the Rebels in Dunedin, struggled along with his teammates at times during that year under Joseph, but has also been a key part of the team's success.

The little No9, who has played 58 tests and has had to overcome the fall-out of several high-profile mistakes of his own, drives the team's up-tempo style with the velocity of his pass but also his whip-like tongue which provides a constant soundtrack to his forwards.

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That was present during his team's comeback victory over the Brumbies in Canberra last weekend, and Smith, in reflecting on his career this week, said that was a significant one.

"It showed how much it means to us and how much we're willing to work," he said. "I remember we went 0-8 one year to start and I was thinking rugby wasn't much fun, but I think that was the best thing to happen to us. We stopped talking about trying to win the competition at the start of the year and [instead] earned the right to win games."

Smith, now 28, was representing Manawatu when selected for the New Zealand Maori under Joseph and travelled south to the Highlanders under the same coach in 2011. It was the best move he could have made, he said.

"I'm from a small town [Feilding] and one thing I like about Dunedin is that it has small-town values. I love that it's a close-connected community and they always support the Highlanders well. I remember a season when we didn't win many games and there were still about 10,000 people coming.

"A lot of the boys are from outside the region so we have to stay tight. They [coaches] build a really good culture around that."

His debut was a victory over the Bulls in Pretoria and since then he has won a final, played in a match at Forsyth Barr Stadium against the Crusaders with a faulty game clock which saw him kick the ball out on the full twice only to hear the referee say "play on" and plenty more besides.

"I just really wanted an opportunity and Jamie Joseph at the time said 'I can see things in your game that could suit the way I want to play and I'll give you the opportunity if you can get fit and healthy and train really hard'. It was the best thing for me. I'm made a home here now and I love this place."