What a conundrum Aaron Smith has become. A thorny issue if ever there was one. So easy to admire for his work on the field, so easy to judge for what he's done off it.

An increasingly strong and brilliant decision-maker when he wears number nine and yet he has a track history that says he's prone to suspect choices when he's dressed to the nines.

He's become like no other All Black of recent times in that he has forced such a split evaluation of himself as a professional and as a person.

On one front he excels and on the other he may never restore his reputation with a nation that wants to be forgiving of him but hasn't been given much with which to work.


His performance at Albany was quite brilliant. Maybe even his best for the All Blacks. There was such authority and composure about not only the way he played, but also the way he directed the All Blacks tactically.

A few years ago he was predominantly all about his speed of pass and ability to get to breakdowns.

What's happened in recent times is that he's developed multiple aspects to his game. He remains, essentially, a pass and run halfback. That's still his bread and buttering offering.

He still has no peer in his ability clear the ball quickly. No one in world rugby can pass as well as he does.

Maybe it is unfair to compare, but the All Blacks looked a different team in Albany with Smith at halfback than they did with TJ Perenara there.

Unfair perhaps because in New Plymouth where Perenara started, he was behind a pack that was struggling at the breakdown and not able to deliver that quick release possession.

Still, fair or unfair, it's clear that Smith has re-established daylight between himself and Perenara. It's clear that the All Blacks are a better team when Smith starts than when Perenara does.

And it's not just the speed of clearance and delivery either. Smith reads the game so well now. He took a risk early in the game against South Africa by tapping a kickable penalty.

It's never easy to believe it is the right thing to do, but he justified it by creating a try for Rieko Ioane with an incredibly deft kick off his left foot.

What impressed more, however, was Smith's explanation of why he did it. He said he felt the All Blacks needed to get something going: that they needed a moment to settle them and spark them.

It was an astute observation and one that demonstrated his ability these days to interpret the mood of the team, the flow of the game and what needs to be done.

There were little touches from him all night that demonstrated the command he has now and the dots have to be connected to suggest that one of the major reasons Beauden Barrett improved out of sight against the Boks, was that he had Smith back as his halfback partner.

Smith bought Barrett time, took some of the decision-making pressure off him and did more to generate the sort of attacking tempo the All Blacks were after.

If it was Smith's finest night as an All Black, the performance it would be trumping would be the one he gave in the corresponding fixture last year.

Against the Boks in Christchurch 2016, Smith was equally magnificent. But it was the day after that performance in Christchurch that Smith's most infamous off-field antic took place.

The stain of that day has not been removed, largely because it is not yet clear whether New Zealand Rugby actually ever knew the full extent of what happened.

Recent media revelations have forced NZR to have another look at the whole sorry business and until they are able to definitively put a line under it and say case closed, Smith will have to continue to be judged on this split professional/personal basis.