The Americans are often guilty of seeing bigger as better and biggest as best.

Perhaps size brings a sense of comfort, a security that something only becomes giant because it was worth the effort to make it that way.

For a while, too, rugby coaches everywhere, including New Zealand, were into the bigger is better philosophy and there was a kind of nuclear arms race going on to build super-sized halfbacks.

The late 1990s were all about the Spice Girls, Oasis, Bill Clinton most definitely not having sexual relations with that woman, Quentin Tarantino movies, some nonsense about a millennium bug bringing planes crashing out of the sky, the death of Princess Diana and blokes the size of loose forwards playing at halfback.


And just as it didn't matter that the Spice Girls couldn't really sing, nor did anyone seem to mind that some of the halfbacks being regularly picked couldn't really pass.

They weren't there so much for their distribution, but for their ability to cause havoc around the fringes and players such as Joost van der Westhuizen and Scotland's Gary Armstrong were stunningly good at it.

What we had was tough, muscular men wearing No 9 but playing like a No 8 and for a decade, maybe longer, this bigger is better thinking dominated.

It was an era tailor-made for the combative Justin Marshall who was a significantly better distributor than he was ever given credit for, but whose key strengths were his running game, defensive clout and as he matured, an incredible tactical awareness and ability to dictate play.

Marshall made an indelible footprint in All Blacks' history as a result of being in possession of a skills portfolio that allowed the team to play the style of rugby at the pace they wanted between 1996 and 2005.

He was the perfect player for that period – his skills evolving to suit the All Blacks' game-plan as much as the All Blacks game-plan evolved to suit his skills.

On Saturday at Aviva Stadium, his record of 81 caps will be surpassed by Aaron Smith, creating with it an inevitable debate about which player was better.

But a comparison is pointless as neither would have made the same impact in the other's era.


Smith wouldn't have stood a chance of winning selection back then. He'd have been deemed too small – too vulnerable on defence.

As it was he faced those same coaching prejudices for much of his early career – rejected by Super Rugby sides who weren't willing to believe that his skillset could be deadly if they gave him the chance.

That changed when Jamie Joseph had the bravery to break rank and pick Smith for New Zealand Maori in 2010.

Aaron Smith in action for the Maori All Blacks during a 2010 clash against England. Photo / Getty
Aaron Smith in action for the Maori All Blacks during a 2010 clash against England. Photo / Getty

Hansen liked what he saw and kept an eye on Smith who emerged in Super Rugby the following year.

"You select players to play the game you want to play but if you don't have those players you can't play that game," says Hansen.

"When we first came together as a group in 2012 we wanted to play a game that was high speed and we were fortunate enough to be able to find people who could do that.

"Aaron has done a marvellous job speeding up the delivery of our ball and allowing us to play at a speed that has been uncomfortable for other teams at times.

"There is the old saying it is not the size of the dog but the size of the fight in the dog. Once you get him having a sense of belonging and committed to your group he will die for it.

Test number 1: Aaron Smith during his test debut against Ireland in 2012. Photo /Getty
Test number 1: Aaron Smith during his test debut against Ireland in 2012. Photo /Getty

"He's not the most physical halfback but he doesn't get hurt too often either and he doesn't miss too many tackles either. You could probably count on one hand how many he has missed."

It's impossible to guess how Marshall would have fared in the current landscape where the All Blacks place the onus on speed and accuracy of delivery and with it a sense that a world which once embraced bigger halfbacks has now firmly rejected them.

He'd no doubt have been able to adapt his game to suit what was being asked of him but it wouldn't be his natural inclination to play like that and it would probably be selling his portfolio short.

Smith's landmark moment, then, should be seen for what it is – him becoming the most experienced halfback in All Blacks history.

It shouldn't serve by right as confirmation that he is also the best halfback in All Blacks history.

He's been brilliant since he made his debut in 2012. Inspirational to those around him and to a whole generation of emerging little men who have been given hope they can play test football.

But better than Marshall? No, just different.

He's a great player just as Marshall was a great player and Dave Loveridge before that and Sid Going before that.

All of them thrived because they had what the coaches of their respective times wanted and the ability to make the All Blacks a better team.

That's why it is an ultimately futile process trying to place Smith in history, but instead his record-breaking game is the right time to appreciate his special talents without the need to make comparisons.

All Blacks team:

1. Karl Tu'inukuafe, 2. Codie Taylor, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Sam Whitelock, 5. Brodie Retallick, 6. Liam Squire, 7. Ardie Savea, 8. Kieran Read, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Beauden Barrett, 11. Rieko Ioane, 12. Ryan Crotty, 13. Jack Goodhue, 14. Ben Smith, 15. Damian McKenzie.

Reserves: 16. Dane Coles, 17. Ofa Tuungafasi, 18. Nepo Laulala, 19. Scott Barrett, 20. Matt Todd, 21. TJ Perenara, 22. Richie Mo'unga, 23. Anton Lienert-Brown