The All Blacks coaches are certain that Aaron Smith is the best halfback in the world. But they face a hard task this week trying to determine whether he is the best player for them to start at halfback against France.

The conviction about Smith's place in the world order is based on when he is at the top of his game. On form he remains untouchable, a halfback like no other with the skills to up the tempo, generate width and punish any team that gets lazy on defending the fringes.

But since his return from exile, he hasn't found his form. In Chicago he was well off his best - showing the effects of not having played for the better part of six weeks.

It was a fair assessment from the All Blacks coaches to attribute his performance in Chicago to a lack of game time - the classic symptoms of not having had enough rugby.


He looked sharper and more confident when he came off the bench against Italy and produced 35 minutes that strengthened the view he had only been struggling physically and not mentally in the first test against Ireland.

But he went backwards again in Dublin. That blew the physical theory a little bit as with game time and training time behind him, the expectation was that he would be close to his true self in Dublin.

He wasn't. He didn't play as badly as some have suggested but he did throw a strangely wild pass early in the game and his kicking game collapsed in the second half.

It was not Smith as everyone has come to know him and the man who famously is hardly ever pulled in a test until his legs have all but given up in the dying minutes, found himself exiting a test early for the second time in three weeks.

"Just a few more games I think," was assistant coach Ian Foster's assessment after the second Ireland test of what Smith needed. "Overall we were pretty pleased with his distribution today. His energy was good and he probably gets a little bit too excited at times. I think he is trending upwards.

"When he gets a little bit fatigued his kicking let him down a little bit in terms of his accuracy. It is normally a strength of his game and that caused us a few little issues in the second half not being able to play more territory. But he has taken steps."

But whether he has taken enough steps to merit a start ahead of TJ Perenara against France is the question the selectors will have to ask themselves.

Foster and head coach Steve Hansen are nurturing patient, sorts. Can they be convinced that one more start is all Smith needs to come good? Do they believe that?

It would be a gamble because they also have a fixed view that the team has to come first. Is Smith the right player to start from a team perspective?

Is he in a good enough head space to give the All Blacks what they need or would picking him be putting the individual ahead of the collective?

The other thing the coaches will have to consider is how Perenara will feel if he sees his form go continually unrewarded. Coaches can talk all they like about a match day 23, but players want to start and it's not always easy for them to accept when they don't.

Of all the selection dilemmas to crop up in the Hansen coaching reign, this is one of the more intriguing.