Pick'n Go
Aaron Smith is the new All Blacks ace
Sam Bruce
June 22, 2015
Aaron Smith is clearly the standout No.9 in world rugby © Getty Images

The All Blacks unveiled their first squad for 2015 on Sunday with five debutants included among a 41-strong roster for a Test against Samoa and the Rugby Championship.

Highlanders Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo are among those five new faces in the squad, the duo rewarded for fine Super Rugby seasons that will continue for at least another week after the southerners emerged triumphant from a thrilling finals encounter with the Chiefs.

Both Sopoaga and Naholo have been significant contributors to the Highlanders' success this season. Fly-half Sopoaga has grown in confidence after finding a better balance in his game, and better learning how to guide the Highlanders around the field. Naholo, meanwhile, has provided the finishing touches out wide with his speed, power and footwork seeing him cross the try-line no less than 11 times this season.

But there remains one common denominator between the duo - half-back Aaron Smith. When they arrive to collect their All Blacks kit in the coming weeks, both Sopoaga and Naholo would be wise to take a moment to offer the diminutive No.9 just a quick word of thanks. Smith has given Sopoaga superb service throughout the season while his ability to create opportunities for both Naholo and Patrick Osborne has been remarkable.

Highlanders 24-14 Chiefs (Australia only)

While the world's best flankers and fly-halves have closed the gap on Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, respectively, Smith is fast moving in the other direction. He is world's best No.9 by some margin; the chasing pack hasn't even entered the home straight.

On Saturday night in Dunedin, Smith set up both of Naholo's tries with the kind of blindside dart that would have brought a smile to the face of any of history's finest scrum-halves. As defensive structures have improved, the short side has somewhat fallen out of favour as an attacking option; Smith's efforts at Forsyth Barr Stadium may just bring it back into vogue.

Both the Highlanders and Chiefs had their opportunities in a furious opening 20 minutes but were left to settle for a penalty goal each. That was until Smith darted down the blind from a scrum on the halfway line, drew the winger with a ball to Naholo, stayed in support to receive a return pass, and then drew the full-back to put his winger over in the corner.

Smith was at it again two minutes after the break, this time from a five-metre scrum on the Chiefs' line. With blindside flanker Liam Messam turned ever so slightly by the scrum, Smith scooped up the ball, sucked in two Chiefs defenders and again found Naholo with a basketball-style pass the winger accepted to again touch down in the corner. Away from Smith's skill, there was very little between the Highlanders and Chiefs in a gripping finals contest.

Waisake Naholo was the beneficiary of Aaron Smith's skill in Dunedin © Getty Images

There is no doubt that fly-half remains the key position in rugby while goal-kicking - currently a major concern for Australia - will go a long way to deciding this year's Rugby World Cup. That is likely to see Carter get the nod at No.10 for the All Blacks ahead of Beauden Barrett but the veteran No.10 is no longer the standout playmaker in world rugby. He is, after all, now 33 years of age.

It's the same for McCaw. His understudy Sam Cane enjoyed a superb Super Rugby season with the Chiefs while Australia's Michael Hooper and David Pocock, Wales captain Sam Warburton and Ireland workhorse Sean O'Brien will all be a force at this year's global showpiece.

But no-one comes close to Smith at No.9. For while McCaw will provide the leadership and experience up front, and Carter the cool head and goal-kicking at No.10, they're unlikely to break a game open with a key play in the crunch moments - the kind of masterful effort for which their careers will leave a permanent mark on rugby history.

That responsibility has shifted to Smith - he is the new All Blacks ace.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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