By Jake Beleski
Aaron Smith needs a break.
Not a week off, but an extended period away from the media spotlight and pressures of international rugby.
Unfortunately, he won’t get that until after this weekend, after being named on the bench for the final test of the year against France in Paris.
Smith has been completely out of sorts since the Christchurch Airport incident, and his performances on the field have reflected that.
He had an opportunity to stamp his mark on last week’s test against Ireland, but a horribly misdirected pass across his own posts followed by an unlucky yellow card — both early in the first half — consigned Smith to another miserable night in the black jersey.
Hansen had two options this week — name Smith in the side and hope he can finish the year on some sort of high, and at least look towards 2017, and an increasingly interesting series with the British and Irish Lions, with some sort of confidence — or leave him out altogether and let the mistakes that have plagued his game for the last few months fester in his mind before his Super Rugby campaign with the Highlanders begins.
He chose the former, and now Smith has one last chance to show why Hansen, and others around the country, continue to claim he is the world’s best halfback, provided he gets on the field this weekend.
Make no mistake, TJ Perenara deserves to start, and probably should have started last weekend in Dublin based on current form.
He has been one of the AB’s best this season, and must have been wondering what he had to do to usurp Smith in the eyes of the coaches.
But Hansen is loyal to players who have done the job in the past, and Smith’s form over the last few seasons has hardly wavered, let alone caused people to debate his merit in the current All Blacks side.
Let’s hope he finishes on a positive note this weekend, before coming back reinvigorated when the Lions arrive next year.
The other man needing a big performance in Paris is skipper Kieran Read.
He may have led the team on a remarkable winning streak this year, but he has hardly featured in open play as he did when he convincingly claimed World Rugby Player of the Year in 2013.
There have been glimpses — a couple of trademark runs early in last week’s contest showed the flair is still there, but it has been far too rare this season.
With Dane Coles continuously roaming out on the fringes, Read has been left to work in the trenches, but his skill-set is what sets him apart from other No. 8s around the world, and he will want to regain that edge before 2017 arrives.