A change of mindset has made All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith a better player and person, writes MARC HINTON.
You could say Aaron Smith has dipped back into his past to find the path to his future. In doing so he has rediscovered not only his love and appreciation for this game he gets to play for a living, but also his dedication to it.
In other words, he is determined to stop leaving so much to chance and grab back hold of his destiny.
Smith has clearly done his thinking and come to some fairly emphatic conclusions, in the wake of a tumultuous 2016 where off-field indiscretions threatened to derail his career. That much was glaringly obvious to the chirpy No 9’s Highlanders mates who knew something was up when their inspirational little driving force turned up for the start of Super Rugby in eye-popping physical condition.
Soon enough they would discover he had a mindset to match.
Ben Smith, who had taken the back half of 2017 off to recharge his batteries on a NZ Rugby-approved sabbatical, could not believe the condition in which his namesake rolled up at the Highlanders, considering his season had not wrapped up until the end of November and the Test against Wales in Cardiff. Remember, All Blacks have an unspoken pass when it comes to turning up for their franchises ready to hit the ground running.
‘He spent a bit of December and all of January not resting on his laurels too much,’ was Smith’s quaint appraisal. ‘He did quite a bit of work that he might not have done in the past and that has served him well coming back into the Highlanders. It’s energised him. It’s set him up really well.’
Smith took some time during the All Blacks’ June series against France to confirm not only his career-best physical condition but also a refreshed mindset that is dedicated to leaving no stone unturned as he chases, all going to plan, World Cup history in Japan next year.
‘I’ve changed a lot of things in my life,’ says the 2015 World Cup winner. ‘A lot of positive things have come from what’s happened. I’m still working on me, and it’s a day-to-day thing. But I’m really clear in my head about where I’m going and who I am, and am kind of proud of who I’m becoming. I’m still working on that man, but I’m in a good spot.
‘It’s about being grateful for opportunities. To be honest, I don’t know if I was that grateful for a year or so. But I’m really grateful for where I’m at now. I just want to do everything I can to give myself an opportunity to perform.’
And, yes, part of that refocus has involved getting himself in the best shape he could to start the season. It has ended up being career-topping.
‘I’m in the best shape of my life with fitness, skinfolds and weight,’ he says. ‘It’s given me another gear and the game comes a bit easier. But you can also go harder when you’re fitter, because you’ve got another gear to go to. I feel the work I did in December will set me up to go deep into this year.’
Of course, Smith is no stranger to working hard at mastering his craft. When he was a youngster growing up in the town of Feilding, 20km north of Palmerston North, he made it clear to a supportive father he was pretty keen to be the best rugby player he could.
So a period ensued where young Smith was seldom seen around Feilding without a rugby ball in his hand.
‘You’d play with it until it was pretty much smooth, and if you get good at passing a bald ball, it’s easy when you get a grippy one,’ he recalls of his early days honing his craft.
His principal regime involved him hitting a set spot on the family wheelie-bin.
‘Every night before dinner, my old man would come home and I’d be waiting by that rubbish bin … if I passed just right it would come back … the competitive streak he fed was pretty cool and I think he found it fun to see what I could and couldn’t do.’
So when Smith decided to leave nothing to chance in 2018, it was fairly easy for him to fall back into old habits in what for most All Blacks is usually a relaxing December.
‘I’m not getting any younger and really want to take the opportunities ahead of me. There’s an exciting thing at the end of next year … I’m getting to the part of my All Blacks career where I want to leave a good legacy and I want to push myself to see what I can do. These coaches here will give you every opportunity to do that if you’re willing to work.
‘So I wanted to see what kind of pre-season I needed to set myself up to have a big year. I’ve seen that I don’t have to pass a rugby ball every day. I can be running roads, doing hill sprints, climbing stairs, and still have snacks and beers and enjoy summer.’
In essence he found a way to have the best of both worlds: take a mental break from rugby, but get himself in just the right shape to maximise what he did when it was time to start zipping that ball out again.
‘It just gives you a good opportunity to perform,’ he says. ‘I think I did pretty well last year, playing consistent footy. It’s about doing it again. There are some important trophies the All Blacks like to win and I’d love to be a big part of – like keeping the Bledisloe, winning the Rugby Championship, and then in November, Ireland and England away doesn’t get any bigger.’
Smith is adamant, too, that he is being pushed for every opportunity, especially by his long-time friend and principal rival for
the starter’s spot in his country’s finest XV.
‘His work ethic is amazing,’ says Smith of TJ Perenara. ‘He’s always either thinking about the game, looking at footage or training to get his body in the best shape. He’s pushed me the whole way, every day, every week, every training he’s there. He’s an outstanding man too, a great leader in this group and he holds a lot of mana [power and prestige]. He’s a big cog in this machine.’
That’s Smith for you. On top of his own game and respecting the heck out of his closest rival’s to boot.
– This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.