Like many in a pandemic-consumed world, Aaron Smith's year is deviating off the script he envisioned. Unless his second child arrives earlier than scheduled, the world-class halfback is unlikely to feature for the All Blacks again this season.
It's a tough scenario to swallow for a passionate, highly competitive athlete at the peak of his powers, but Smith knows he is not alone in circumstances drastically altering. In his case, there are silver linings - playing for Manawatu in the NPC one example; putting his wife and family first another.
Smith hasn't ruled out the prospect of dashing to Europe post the birth of his second child in November but appreciates that fate is out of his hands. The All Blacks final test of the year is against France in Paris on November 20.
"I'm holding hope for any opportunity. If baby comes early the door is open to maybe rejoin the boys. It would be awesome to wear black again this year if things fall my way but I'm being real as well about that door being shut," Smith told the Herald in an honest interview. "If baby comes on time it probably shuts the door."
Watching the All Blacks dominate their past two Rugby Championship tests against the Wallabies and Pumas in Australia has filled Smith with equal parts pride and longing. Despite those conflicting emotions, he is content to prioritise family.
"It was an obvious one because the unknown of an MIQ spot on the way home was too much for me and my family. I wanted to give my wife the assurance I was coming home and I couldn't do that.
"We were holding hope things with Covid, borders and MIQ spots could maybe give me a chance to join the team, but as we've seen it became impossible."
At the start of this season Smith informed All Blacks coach Ian Foster he and wife Teagan were expecting their second child, and that the timeframe would see him skip the northern tour to be present for the birth and assist thereafter.
At that point, with New Zealand Covid-19 free, Smith circled successive tests against the world champion Springboks, and planned to finish his season after the Rugby Championship to allow ample time to return home.
"When I mapped out my year the South Africans were the pinnacle goal for me – to be at those games which were supposed to be in Dunedin and Auckland. It was looking really peachy and then, wham, Covid hit again."
Since his test debut in 2012 Smith has been selected for every possible campaign, such is his influence. Earlier this year he notched his 100th test and captained the All Blacks for the first time. Coming to grips with being physically able to play, yet circumstances curtailing those plans, has been challenging, but Smith is comfortable with his call.
He's now set about accentuating changes such as attending son Luka's second birthday and channelling his hunger to join the Manawatu Turbos, his hometown province, this week.
Leaving for the 2019 World Cup in Japan not long after Luka's arrival also helped solidify his decision to stay home this time around.
"Becoming a father and seeing what Teagan had to go through, how bad of a state she was in when I left it was a really tough time. I know she had her mum and grandmother here to help, and I know we're going to have great support again, but the birth alone is something you can't get back.
"I just couldn't see missing the birth of my next child being more important. My family is everything. Women get the rough end of the stick for everything so the least I can do is be there to support her; to keep the house clean, keep Luka busy. She's always there for me so for a little bit of sacrifice of games I'm willing to do that.
"I'm trying to look for positives in these times. I don't want to say I've had it rough - I haven't at all. I'm at home with my family, I'm healthy, my family is healthy, but in the sense of not being able to play, that's tough.
"Watching at home has been very interesting; watching the anthem and the haka and my son says 'go Daddy' and I'm sitting right there. It's weird knowing I could be there, but with how its fallen and the tournament not being in New Zealand I couldn't make it work."
Smith is five games off cracking 50 for Manawatu, having played two matches last September while borders were closed. Prior to that he had a nine-year gap between provincial appearances. Smith will, therefore, savour this rare chance to highlight his pathway when he takes the field in Palmerston North against Northland next weekend.
"The opportunity to play for Manawatu is something to push for. To be able to go back and see my family and friends; give back to a union I love, go back to Feilding High School, I feel like a kid joining the team for the first time.
"I'm craving being in a rugby environment and I'm sure my wife wants me out of the house too I'm getting a bit antsy – there's only so much training you can do by yourself. My job is a rugby player so I'm fit, available, I'll go play up there until baby is here and then, who knows."
From a conditioning and longevity perspective the likelihood of missing the remainder of the All Blacks season could potentially prolong Smith's career. The 32-year-old has his sights firmly set on the 2023 World Cup, and after playing every match in Super Rugby transtasman this year following Folau Fakatava's season-ending knee injury he has already endured a heavy load.
"It's a great silver lining. I've used lockdown as a chance to get my body right I had a bit of a knee niggle after the Bledisloe my MCL was pretty badly beaten up but I've had a month to get it right and it's good now so I'm in a good place. Hopefully we'll be guns blazing next Saturday."
As tough as forgoing occasions such as the 100th test against the Springboks will be, Smith's commitment to his family ultimately holds sway.
"I won't ever regret being there for the birth of my son. In 20 years I'll remember that. I won't remember the lockdown. I'll remember I was there for my son and Teagan when they needed me most. That's what matters. As much as I love the black jersey that motivates me to stay fit, hungry and positive because the team deserves that. On the flipside my family gives me everything and at this stage I had to pick them."