By Jake Beleski
Far more than competition points will be on the line when the Hurricanes clash with the Highlanders in Wellington tonight.
Aaron Smith will be able to kiss goodbye his hopes of wearing the No 9 jersey against the British and Irish Lions if TJ Perenara has his way.
It is a prime opportunity for Perenara to show the selectors the gap between himself and Smith has widened, not closed.
The battle of the nines is an intriguing one, with the out-of-sorts Smith struggling to produce positive performances, let alone match-winning ones.
Poor kicking and inaccurate passing are constantly blighting the diminutive halfback’s game, but his lack of ability to slow the tempo of a match is most concerning.
Smith thrives on a quick game with a forward pack rumbling forward in front of him.
Playing behind an All Black pack means he is afforded that luxury the majority of the time.
But as soon as it turns into a physical grind, his small stature and high-octane style leave little time for the people outside him to assess what is in front of them.
Against a back-pedalling defence Smith comes into his own, but against a set defensive line the things we love most about his game can become a burden for those outside him.
Perenara, in contrast, has continued where he left off at the end of 2016.
Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow got the better of him in the Hamilton wet last weekend, as he did with Smith under the Dunedin roof in round one.
But if the All Black coaches adhere to the standards they have set in the past, Kerr-Barlow’s announcement that he is heading to France at the end of this season should pave the way for Perenara and Smith to continue their running battle for the No 9 jersey.
The continued decline of Smith makes for frustrating viewing, as we all know how dynamic he can be on his day.
Only a couple of years ago I would have suggested he was not only the most important player in the All Blacks’ line-up, but the most influential player in world rugby.
New Zealand rugby needs Smith to regain his confidence and form in time for the Lions tour.
Turning in a match-winning performance against the defending champions, and his biggest rival, is the ideal starting point.
First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga’s hamstring injury means Smith will have to shoulder extra responsibility and manoeuvre his team around the field, but that could be just what he needs to finally wake from his slumber.
If not, Perenara will sleep well knowing the No 9 jersey is all but his.