150: A magic milestone for the man they call Nuggy

Next year, he is set to become the most capped Highlander, taking it off his namesake Ben Smith.
Next year, he is set to become the most capped Highlander, taking it off his namesake Ben Smith.
Highlanders and All Black halfback Aaron Smith will 
become just the second Highlander to play 150 games when he runs out at Forsyth Barr Stadium today. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn looks at what makes Smith great and how he has been the absolute key for the side.


The quality of a top, top player is there for all to see — except it isn’t.

Some have an outstanding step. Others are brutal defenders while the cream can sniff out a chance and make the most of it.

But the real difference is the top players simply do the right things at the right time, all the time.

These things are simply not noticed by most. It is glossed over but is, by and large, what wins games.

The pass always going to its receiver. A tackle always made. A kick in the just the correct place.

Just 500 different things in every game done correctly and accurately.

Aaron Smith is one of those players who does that.

The 31-year-old can certainly do the clutch play but he does the basics so well.

Look back at the match-winning try the Highlanders scored against the Chiefs in Hamilton last month. Smith drew in the defender and put Sio Tomkinson into the gap to score the try. He made it look simple but it was not.

If restrictions last into the weekend, the Highlanders may play without a crowd this weekend....
Aaron Smith in action. Photo: Getty Images

The amazing try he set up with Waisake Naholo, again against the Chiefs, in the quarterfinal in 2015. Just releasing the ball at the right time. Simple stuff, really, but only the very best can do it.

The pass by Smith is the best ever seen. People mention Chris Laidlaw and Dean Kenny for their length and speed of pass but Smith is the absolute best at moving the ball. The quickness of his pass is the key to the Highlanders game and the All Blacks game.

Smith is exceptionally fit — he gets to every ruck and gives those outside him so much time. When Smith played his first game under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2012 he almost combusted after the game, such was his excitement about the new venue.

He had plenty of reason to be excited. The venue was made for him and his game. The man they call Nuggy was built for a hard and fast track. He burned off Chiefs halfback Brad Weber the other week and shows no sign of slowing down.

When Smith arrived at the Highlanders in 2011, it was hardly a stunning first year.

The small man from Manawatu came south relatively unheralded, spotted by first-year coach Jamie Joseph and picked for the NZ Maori team.

Smith had three starts that year and was a long way behind first choice Jimmy Cowan.

The next year Smith returned a different player — faster, more dynamic and tougher. It looked like it would take him half a season and he would be ahead of Cowan.

It took 40 minutes — one half of a pre-season game against the Chiefs in Queenstown and he was first choice. He was an All Black a few months later and has been ever-present since then.

Smith had had the odd blooper along the way both on and off the field but who hasn’t?

He was dropped briefly in 2013 as he was trying too hard but in 2015 he was white hot as the Highlanders claimed the title.

Captaincy looked to be a load on him at the start of the year but is now sitting well on his shoulders.

Next year, he is set to become the most capped Highlander, taking it off his namesake Ben Smith.

Will he be then the best ever Highlander? Maybe, maybe not, but he is definitely at the top table.


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