It all makes sense to TJ Perenara now. It didn't used to, not in his younger days because back then he thought that no matter who he played for, the gameplan should work around his skills and not the other way around.

He sees now that was a problem and so too was his failure to fully understand that he was being asked to play a certain way for the Hurricanes and a slightly different way for the All Blacks.

His rise to the All Blacks No 9 jersey in the last few months hasn't been triggered by him suddenly finding a yard of extra pace, or pushing his passes out a split second faster or improving his kicking game. All of this things have happened, but they are a product of him getting his head around what his role is in the All Blacks. It's that simple - for the first time since he broke into the national squad in 2013, he knows exactly what he's been picked to do. He knows now what to consider his core skills and with that certainty he's been able to make decisions quicker which in turn has made it seem, perhaps, that he's quicker, stronger and more accurate with his passing.

But in truth, he's always been a supremely good athlete. He's always been able to make incredible support runs, big tackles and boot the ball a mile. Now he's doing it on instinct and he's doing it better because he's more confident.


How he made his mental breakthrough is the most interesting part of the story. Perhaps not unexpectedly it was being forced to face adversity that changed things for Perenara.

A regular squad player since 2013, he was cur from the initial All Blacks squad in June this year. Head coach Steve Hansen offered no soft landing - Perenara had been dropped, only to be offered a reprieve of sorts because Tawera Kerr-Barlow wasn't fit enough to play in the first two tests of the series against Wales.

"The most disappointing thing was that I thought I was actually playing pretty good footy," says Perenara. "I didn't think I was playing terribly so that disappointed me. But the feedback I was getting from the Canes and the All Blacks was that it was two different roles.

"The one that I play at the Canes is different and that is what I had struggled with at previous times with the All Blacks. I was still trying to play a certain gameplan that wasn't our gameplan so trying to transition into an All Blacks role and then transition back into the Canes is something I am trying to get better at.

"I think the main thing for me was that I was defined about it. I thought the way I play can suit any gameplan and that is something I didn't understand. I didn't understand myself and my role enough and I feel like the older I get the more I understand that my style of play needs to work in with the gameplan instead of the gameplan working with my style of play. I do have pros and cons for each gameplan."

Being dropped did the trick - it made him take stock of what specific direction he needed to take. His career had been smooth sailing until then. He was the schoolboy superstar, jumped straight into the New Zealand Under-20 side and was playing for Wellington when he was barely 19. The Hurricanes followed and so too did the All Blacks. And then wham, he was out in the cold and it hurt.

"For a big part of my time in the All Blacks, I always want to be playing and I guess I made squads but I didn't get too much game time which I guess is a little bit different to not actually making the squad," he says.

"I made teams growing up and I guess the only bad thing that happened was I broke my ankle. I never missed any teams before because of selection so that was a big wake up call for me and something I have learned from.


"When you face adversity as a footy player you can go one of two ways: you can either get worse or get better and that is something I always told myself that I wanted to come back stronger. Yes it hurt at the time but it is something that it has made me a better player."

No one could disagree with his assertion that he's a better player. His pass doesn't have the same sting as Smith's and he's not quite the same pass and run player, but he's more muscular, defensively top class and able to influence the game differently but almost as effectively.

At the core of his offering, though, is the ability to get his hands on the ball and move it - to keep the tempo of the All Blacks' attacking game high and to ensure that they can play with the continuity they are after.

It's not quite what he does at the Hurricanes where he's more of a playmaker - almost a 10 playing at No 9 - but nor is he a clone of Smith. And that's the crucial thing as far as he's concerned, his game can't be easily referenced off anyone else's because it is not built or styled on anyone else's.

"A few years I go I didn't think I wanted to be like Aaron Smith but I thought that style of play was getting starts - that is what the selectors wanted and I instinctively thought that if I play like that, then I will get more opportunities," Perenara says.

"But that was wrong in my eyes when I look back on it now. If you try to be someone else you are never going to be as good as them. My thought process now is to be the best me I can be and if it is good enough great and if I fail, I would rather fail being myself then fail trying to be someone else."