A couple of things to take out of Ben Smith's impressive return to training with the Highlanders even though he's technically on holiday.

One, he's a true professional who is probably rarely out of condition, and, two, how much better would the top All Blacks be if they were allowed a proper pre-season rather than missing Super Rugby's first game or two and playing catch-up from then on?

It's little surprise that, after being given the chance to rest mind and body over the past four months, Smith has returned to his job re-energised and apparently posting personal bests in training.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has long called for a global season to be introduced in order for his players to be given a 14-week break, and a proper pre-season, but it's not likely to happen in the near future and instead we get an ad hoc solution where our top players are missing from the first weeks of Super Rugby. The game is far poorer as a result.

Advertisement

Read more: What sabbatical? Ben Smith excels at Highlanders training

Spare a thought for Sam Whitelock at the end of a long year for him. The All Blacks lock was the Crusaders' skipper as Scott Robertson's team won the competition for the first time since 2008 and had a huge workload for the All Blacks in the three tests against the British & Irish Lions, Rugby Championship and northern tour (he started in 12 tests and was rested in the two against Argentina).

Whitelock is probably well overdue for a proper break but will presumably retain his role as Crusaders captain and be due to return for the red and blacks in their opening game of the new season against the Chiefs on February 24.

In order to be fit for that, Whitelock will have to begin training in earnest by early January, meaning he will have had a break of only about six weeks following the last All Blacks' test of the year against Wales on November 26.

Last year, when Hansen was asked to explain the impressive early-season Super Rugby form of several All Blacks, he said: "If you go back through time, after every World Cup where they finish early in November and get a great pre-season they play well.

"It's just another indicator why we need a global season that allows our players to get at least 14 weeks' break.

"When they do that they can recharge batteries, fix up their wee niggles and come back and play the way we want them to play."

Hansen probably won't be surprised that Smith, his vice-captain and one of his most consistent peformers, has wanted to return early to training, or that the 31-year-old has posted impressive numbers.

He and All Blacks supporters should be happy about the latter, in particular. The All Blacks badly missed Smith's composure and game-breaking ability at the back this year, and should the world's best fullback start the 2018 season with the Highlanders fully fit and enthused then that bodes well for the All Blacks too.

It's just a pity few others are given the same opportunity.