Nic Gill has been conditioning the All Blacks for nearly 20 years and says one player's work ethic stands out from the rest. Lachlan Waugh reports.
All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill has named Aaron Smith the most driven athlete he works with, and suggested the world-class halfback is only getting better.
Gill first joined the All Blacks in 2004 as an assistant strength and conditioning coach and gained the role full-time in 2008, being part of the staff that won two Rugby World Cups, in the process working with some of the country's modern-day greats.
Speaking to the Herald, Gill says All Blacks and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith is the player that has impressed him the most with his drive at trainings and desire to improve.
"By a long way. The transformation he's been through from when he first became an All Black to the professional he is now. He is working so hard not just on his team or his form but his body, his skill - his drive to be the best nine in the world is massive," Gill said.
"It's just all the little things - it's the stretching, it's the massages, it's getting to training half an hour before anyone else so he can do his own skill work that others aren't doing. Doing his stretching and his rolling after sessions. He's definitely setting the bar at the moment from what I can tell in the All Black group."
Smith, 32, enjoyed a stellar 2020 season, seeing him win the Highlanders' and fans' player of the year awards.
He's emulated that form throughout the two Super Rugby tournaments in 2021, with his sublime passing game and instincts mixed in with his fast-improving leadership skills helping the southerners to a promising season given injury chaos and coaching changes.
Gill notices Smith's improvement as well at an age where, typically, athletes would begin the downturn from their playing peak.
"If the mindset is right and you've got the discipline to do all those little things… it just translates onto the park. He's a great example of an older athlete that's still at the top of his game and doesn't look like slowing down."
Smith burst onto the scene in 2011 for the Highlanders and 12 months later was selected to make his All Blacks debut. Fast-forward nine years and he has 97 caps and is regarded as one of the greatest players in New Zealand's rich rugby history.
Gill also had high praise for loose forward Liam Messam and utility back Ma'a Nonu - two players who debuted and retired within the coach's tenure with the All Blacks.
Gill first worked with Messam at the Chiefs when the now 37-year-old made his debut in 2006. He spent time at the Chiefs from 2004-2008, as well as Waikato in the NPC from 2001-2006.
"Liam was one of my first hard-out professional athletes," Gill says.
"He came into the Chiefs and was trying to juggle 15s and sevens. He had the work ethic of sevens – often struggled to keep the balance right because he would lose too much weight. He's come a long way.
"He's always been one of the fittest guys in the team, the hardest workers, the one that doesn't drink as much, the one that eats really well."
Gill says as Nonu got older, he became smarter with his body.
"Knowing when to push and when to pull back, and he was always available. Lots of athletes learn about that - learn about 'hey I don't need to run around like a headless chicken at training, I just need to do it on game day'.
"There are good learnings that athletes go through, and those that don't learn that are maybe the ones that don't last to the age of 38."