New Zealand has produced many outstanding halfbacks but none with the electrifying energy, slick pass or vision of Highlanders and All Blacks star Aaron Smith.
Smith doesn’t have all the attacking weapons of ‘Super Syd” Going but he sets up more tries with his slick distribution and scores his fair share himself with his sharp back-up play.
Outside him, former Tasman player and Crusader Mitch Hunt remains one of the smartest first-five tacticians in the business as he showed when the Highlanders inflicted defeat on the Crusaders on their own turf early this year.
When going into next Saturday’s Super Rugby trans-Tasman Super Rugby final against the Blues, they won’t have anywhere near as many All Blacks. But they will have heart, superb fitness and self-belief, especially if the excellent Dalton Papalii and tigerish Tom Robinson don’t recover from injuries suffered in the Blues 31-21 win against the Force.
They’re a team that hunt like a hungry wolf pack, defend tirelessly and never surrender.
And they will need all these qualities against a Blues side that boasts an All Blacks-studded powerful scrum and has learned to gel instead of rely too much on individual brilliance.
There remains plenty of the latter, highlighted by the speed and thrust of Hoskins Sotutu, brothers Akira and Rieko Ioane and wings Bryce Heem and Mark Telea.
Add to that the consistent graft and craft of Papalii, the fearless commitment of Robinson and the development of the talented halves combination of Finlay Christie and Otere Black and Leon MacDonald and his coaching stuff deserve kudos.
The Highlanders, however, won’t be fazed, having faith in the genius of Smith, the tactical smarts of Mitch Hunt and the strike power of wing Jona Nareki who is among the country’s finest.
With try-scoring hooker Ash Dixon leading the way, the pack are no sluggards either with Pari Pari Parkinson winning excellent lineout ball and loosies Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon and Kazuki Himeno, all tireless toilers.
Still, with home advantage, I expect the Blues to win their first Super Rugby title since 2003.
Meanwhile having thrashed England by eight wickets in the second test at Edgbaston to win a historic series against England, the New Zealand cricketers’ confidence will be boosted leading into next week’s world test championship final although star-studded India remain favourites.
Still, just getting that far ahead of other cricketing giants like Australia, Pakistan and South Africa and having been the losing finalist in the last two World ODI finals shows just how much the Black Caps are punching above their weight.
Six changes from the first test team that was robbed of a resounding win against England because of a day’s lost play due to rain demonstrates the incredible depth both in batting and bowling.
With Devon Conway, Will Young and Ross Taylor all scoring 80s in the first innings of the Edgbaston test for the Black Caps to accumulate 388 and lead by 85, England could only manage a limp 122 in their second innings.
Regulars Neil Wagner (3 for 18) and Trent Boult (2-34) were again to the fore among the bowlers and it was also good to see Matt Henry (3-36) and spinner Ajaz Patel (2-25) demonstrate their worth in illustrating New Zealand’s depth.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer