As the rugby season kicks into gear in New Zealand, Phil Gifford ranks the best halfbacks who have pulled on the All Blacks jersey in the past 50 years.
6 – David Kirk (17 tests, 1983-1987)
Kirk may be the most underrated of all. His career was intertwined with his decision to not be involved in games with South Africa. It's been well recorded how badly he was then treated by some of the rebel Cavaliers who toured South Africa in 1986. He'd later write, "I ended up - what's the technical term? - sobbing in my room."
In the astonishing drama of Kirk taking over as captain of the All Blacks at the '87 World Cup from one of the organisers of the Cavaliers, Andy Dalton, because of injury, it was easy to overlook the fact Kirk was not only a born leader, but also a terrific player.
So fast that when he first started playing for Otago while at medical school in Dunedin, Laurie Mains sometimes played him on the wing. Kirk was such a dynamic attacker that in the '87 final against France he set up one try, for John Kirwan, and scored another himself as the All Blacks won 29-9.
5 – Graeme Bachop (31 tests, 1987-1995)
Quite rightly, the 1995 World Cup is mostly remembered for the explosion onto the world scene of Jonah Lomu.
But a masterstroke was the backroom deal that was struck to allow All Black coach Laurie Mains to pick Bachop, even though Bachop had left New Zealand in 1994 to play in Japan for the Sanix club.
What Bachop brought to the table, as well as a gift for choosing exactly when to run in broken play, was startling strength; which helped with his bullet passes to new first-five Mehrtens, allowing the All Blacks to play a style of game as dynamic as the World Cup has seen.
4 – Sid Going (29 tests, 1967-1977)
Going's Northland and All Black teammate Peter Sloane captained Hikurangi against Sid's Mid-Northern side in club rugby in Whangarei in the 1970s. One afternoon Sid bumped off the Hikurangi flanker and Sloane climbed into the loose forward over letting a mere halfback beat him.
"Late in the game Sid came around the front of a lineout," Sloane told me years later. "He knocked me right on my butt. I never bagged our loosies about him after that."
Going never saw the inside of a gym during his career, using pre-season games to get match fit, but in a changing room with his jersey off, his physique rivalled Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was that strength and a natural ability to spot a gap and go for it that made him such a strike weapon on the field.
3 – Dave Loveridge (24 tests, 1978-1985)
Just as the test against the Lions in Wellington in 2005 was a defining match in the career of Dan Carter, the 40,000 of us who were lucky enough to be at Athletic Park in Wellington for the second test against the Lions in 1983 saw Dave Loveridge play the best game by an All Blacks halfback.
On that bitterly cold but dry June afternoon, Loveridge directed things with the control and flair of Peter Jackson on the set of Lord of the Rings.
Loveridge, so small when he started high school in Inglewood he was told he couldn't play rugby, was like a giant, who ran the ball, kicked into space, directed the backline, and scored the only All Blacks try in the 9-0 victory.
Looking back, it's a wonder he didn't slice up the oranges they used to have at halftime.
2 – Justin Marshall (81 tests, 1995-2005)
If you wanted a man playing for your children's lives, someone who'd scrap, and snarl, and fight, and never, ever give up, I'd take the guy from Mataura any time.
His old first-five partner, Andrew Mehrtens, has always argued that Marshall's passing was better that his critics would admit too.
"He had an ability to find you [at first-five] wherever you've gone to on the field. It's hurtful that people say he's not a fast passer."
I can't resist telling my favourite Marshall story. It's 2000 and the Crusaders are losing their last round robin game, in Christchurch, against the Brumbies. Four minutes from the end Justin is told by referee André Watson to clear the ball from a maul.
"It's still moving André," shouts Marshall. "Clear it," says Watson.
Then he blows for a scrum. "Aw, **** André," yells Marshall. Watson reaches for a yellow card in his pocket. "I'll save you the bloody trouble," says Marshall, and starts walking off.
Crusaders captain Todd Blackadder joins the melee. He fronts Watson, asking what the hell's going on. Watson, one hand in his pocket, his eyes on Marshall's disappearing back, can't really explain.
"Get him back," he says, pointing at Marshall. By the time a fuming Marshall is recalled, Watson forgoes the card, but awards a penalty against him.
1 – Aaron Smith (97 tests, 2012-2020)
No wonder New Zealand Rugby and the Highlanders were so pleased with Aaron Smith signing up until 2023. He's the best All Blacks halfback of the last 50 years.
Smith has become the complete package, firing passes that are heat-seeking missiles, picking exactly the right time to make darting runs, and never being late to breakdowns.
His all-round game didn't get there by accident. All Black coaching guru Wayne Smith (no relation), summed up Aaron's success last year for Rugby News magazine. "He has a huge work ethic, and he's never satisfied. Richie McCaw was the same, and so was Daniel Carter. You have to put Nugget in that same group."
Life hasn't always been so smooth for Smith in the All Blacks. He's said that the storm that erupted in 2016 when he was seen emerging with a woman from a toilet at Christchurch airport was at a time when he was "drinking a lot, loving being in the spotlight, thinking, 'Yeah, I'm the man.' It was ugly."
At 32 Smith has patently grown as a man, and, in Wayne Smith's opinion, seems to be getting better as a player too. If Covid-19 hopefully becomes a distant memory, the World Cup of 2023 may be Aaron Smith's glorious swansong.