All Blacks coach Ian Foster on team to play Fiji. Video / All Blacks TVAaron Smith wears his emotions openly and they were pulsing with pride as he prepares to lead the All Blacks for the first time at his favoured home venue on Saturday.
Captaining the All Blacks against Fiji in Dunedin underlines Smith’s longevity as he approaches the 100-test milestone but, perhaps more importantly, it’s a nod of recognition to the devotion he has for the finer details of his craft as well as his continued development as a person and athlete.
Smith was taken aback when All Blacks coach Ian Foster told him he would lead the team last week, and he was thankful for the additional time to process and plan to assume the title.
“I was a bit shocked and quiet at the start but the pre-warning was good,” Smith said. “It’s a great moment for myself and my family but it’s actually just a massive honour that the management trust me enough to do the role that’s probably the thing that gets me the most. All I want to do is repay the faith they’ve shown in me to lead the All Blacks.
“It’s a very special moment to do it in a place I love. I’ve been in Dunedin 11 years, played in this beautiful stadium many times. It’s going to be a special moment running out first; standing at the front of the neho; all these little things that come with the role that are very special.
“I never thought this was possible. I’ve heard from a lot of people in the past two days so it’s pretty special. Playing for the All Blacks was the dream, so it’s still sinking in a little bit.”
Smith’s progression in the professional ranks was not straightforward. Growing up in Feilding he went on to represent Manawatu and dreamed of playing for the Hurricanes only to be overlooked by his home franchise. He spent time in the Blues wider training squad, before Jamie Joseph gave him his big break by recruiting Smith to the Highlanders.
Two years later Smith made such an impression he debuted for the All Blacks during Steve Hansen’s first year in charge. Smith has since established his presence as one of the world’s leading No 9s. He’s been in the All Blacks leadership group since 2016 where he’s voiced honest opinions and pushed others to drive standards.
Off the field he’s also had to overcome the incident that led to him being sent home from South Africa in 2016.
As a halfback, Smith has developed from a typically scrappy nine to someone who can turn a match on its head with one pinpoint pass or dynamic dart. His kicking game, running lines, decision-making, organisation have all improved over time too.
“I was a pretty feisty halfback who didn’t mind an altercation or two with people,” Smith reflected. “As I’ve got older I’ve learnt that’s just wasted energy. Negative tension doesn’t get anywhere; yelling at people doesn’t get a result you want. Speaking on a calmer level; getting eye contact, coming from an empathic angle gets a better response. I’ve tried to do that in the last few years with the Highlanders.”
Preparing to follow fellow halfbacks to lead the All Blacks such as David Kirk and Piri Weepu, Smith singled out Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon as a leader he held in particularly high regard for the personal connections he forges.
Despite turning 33 in November Smith is getting better with age. That’s mostly due to his competitive drive and the major shifts he made in his training regime in recent seasons.
“When I hit 30 I wanted to make the most of the years I had left. It’s actually a little bit scary about the potential that came from that; working even harder, focusing week to week and trying to go to new heights with my training, fitness capacity, routines. I was able to get my body in the best shape it’s ever been in. I feel better now than I did in my late 20s. I do a lot more work around my preparation.”
Adding to the Mori leaders to captain the All Blacks brings more significance to the role, with elders of Smith’s Ngati Kahungunu iwi in Hawke’s Bay reaching out this week.
“It’s special how much it means to my Mori side; to my mother, our family. There’s not many words I can say. My school is buzzing. I’ve heard from everyone this week. I’ve put all the notifications off my phone. I’m trying to get to the game and treat it as normal as possible.”
Lead the All Blacks to a dominant victory over Fiji and Smith’s next target is playing two further tests to notch his century.
“If I can keep my standards high, keep pushing, I’ve got a really exciting opportunity in a few games to tick off another goal of mine. That was really the goal for the year; to try and get three more tests.”
Captaining the All Blacks was never on Smith’s radar and, for that reason alone, there’s few who will treasure it more.

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