Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# Mutual respect
Aaron Smith snapping at the chance to 'mark himself' against France's Parra
The All Black scrum-half has taken time to enjoy the view on his way to the top.

Sean Farrell reports from Swansea

DESPITE MA’A NONU’S assertion that “we All Blacks don’t like talking about ourselves,” they’re an introspective bunch in New Zealand.

Maybe it’s the geography: cut off all the way down there in the South Pacific and with a time zone that necessitates detailed planning before the TV is switched on to watch overseas rugby. After all, who wants to watch European rugby when they could just go out on the nearest piece of grass and play a bit of touch instead?

Whatever it is, the side who usually top the world rankings can often be found wanting when in comes to in-depth knowledge about opponents.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool C - New Zealand v Georgia - Millennium Stadium David Davies David Davies

Even after their team announcement yesterday, head coach Steve Hansen appeared to draw a blank when reaching for the name of both France’s premier rugby competition and the man who will replace Mathieu Bastareaud in the centre tomorrow. Joe Schmidt could never coach his home nation, he’s far too interested in how rugby is played across the globe and never missed an opportunity to show off his exemplary pronunciation of things like “Top Quatorze” or “Alexandre Dumoulin”.

Scrum-half Aaron Smith is the best in the world in his position, yet unlike the other handful of All Blacks who may have that title thrust upon them, he has found time in his ascent to this point in his career to look around him and enjoy the company he’s keeping.

“I saw him play (under) 20s when I was here in Wales. He was a superstar then, played for the French (senior) team before he played 20s. I remember watching him and thinking ‘Jeez, this guy’s pretty good.”

Yep, Smith knows his Morgan Parra trivia. And why wouldn’t he remember his opposite number? Parra is blessed with an array of skills that help him make the game look effortless at times. If a pack can afford him an armchair ride, his movement is so graceful it can look as though he never stops. He just flows from the back of one ruck to the next, passing, passing, proving or dinking over the top. When he’s allowed to hit form, he is a dream of a scrum-half.

Parra, it appears, is currently the barometer for who is in charge of Team France. According to reports last night, the Clermont man’s reappearance in the starting line-up is the result of yet another French mutiny, where players have commandeered the driver’s seat and sent the coach to be nothing more than a public face.

While the bloodless coup is usually bad news for opponents, Smith will be able to find one positive to come from it, he can finally find out how he matches up with the Frenchman.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool D - France v Canada - stadium:mk PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“When they came to New Zealand, he didn’t come out on that tour – I was a bit gutted about that – but to be able to match up against him on such a big game… I remember thinking, even back then (in 2008) ‘I’d love to play that guy and mark myself against him.’

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

“That’s something that’s really excited me this weekend.”

While Smith is on the subject of his younger self, he’s reminded that he once had to work to reel in his emotions in the lead-up to big games. It’s a subject Hansen spoken extensively about yesterday, but no longer something that troubles the scrum-half. Now a Super Rugby Champion with a brilliant Highlanders outfit and an established regular starter with the All Blacks, the 26-year-old sits between two compatriots with a tendency for the monosyllabic, comfortably taking charge of the conversation and setting the tone.

“I played a lot of big games for the All Blacks and this feels like exactly where we want to be. It’s a really good feeling.

“From the Super Rugby I learned just to tone down a bit during the week and just slowly build. You don’t want to play the game before Saturday, I don’t want to play the game today in my head. So that’s all I’d be focusing on.”

No sense in getting too preoccupied with the opposition after all.

‘Apart from Rainbow Warrior, we’re on the same page’: NZ dealing with pressure of France week

Dave Kearney waiting patiently for Ireland chances out wide