Phenomenal Aaron Smith set to become Highlanders' most capped

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A Rugby World Cup winner in 2015 and a bronze medalist in 2019, Friday's Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa game against the Hurricanes in Dunedin will give him another milestone when he becomes his side's most capped player.

He will play his 154th game, one more than Ben Smith achieved. And the opponent will be from his home region and who the Highlanders beat to win their only Super Rugby title in 2015.

Smith, whose speed, not only of delivery of the ball but also around the field marked his game and was of such value to both the Highlanders and All Blacks, said the prospect of heading Ben Smith's record had been on his mind over the past 12 months.

"It's been fuelling me, and now it's kind of here, and my body has given me that chance. There's a good sense of gratitude around all the hard work. You start to remember coaches, teammates you've played with and good memories.

"In the times we're living in, it's a really special time for me and my family and I'm real grateful," he said.

Reflecting on their loss to the Blues in their last outing, Smith said it was disappointing that the Highlanders had given the Blues so much.

It had been nothing like how the Highlanders wanted to play, but with a bye week to think about things, they had returned to action refreshed and looking forward to their next month of rugby, starting with playing a desperate Hurricanes side.

While long-time rival, and All Blacks teammate, TJ Perenara wouldn't be playing, Smith said that it wasn't so much that Perenara's playing influence was missing but, like all halfbacks, they were dependent on the quality of ball they received from their forwards.

What was missing was the leadership, mana and swagger Perenara brought to help the side's confidence.

The Hurricanes game with the Chiefs had been an old-fashioned derby, and the outcome of those game tended to come down to what happened in the last 10 minutes.

"You saw in the first half how potent the Hurricanes were, they were scoring out of nothing, some brilliant tries, their wingers are pretty dangerous. [Halfback] Luke Campbell's try, he showed some pace so that's like TJ's line anyway," he said.

Smith could still recall his debut game in Pretoria in 2011 against the Bulls, coming on after 50 minutes with the Highlanders well in front and able to pull away to a good win. It had been a highlight as it was his first road trip with the side as well.

That first season had been a case of being happy to have a Super Rugby contract, but when he returned in 2012, he was looking to compete more with incumbent Jimmy Cowan.

During 2011 he had been rolling along enjoying the transfer from Palmerston North to Dunedin, getting into the cafes and social life and travelling.

But then coach Jamie Joseph had given Smith the challenge at the end of 2011 by saying he would pick whoever was the best halfback in the following season and that because Cowan was an All Black and a Highlanders' centurion, it didn't mean Smith couldn't start.

"He told me I could be an All Black if I changed some of my habits around my training and get fitter.

"That lit a fire under me around 'OK, maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way'.

"I already think I had that competitive edge and that will to want to be good, but I didn't believe it, not in that first year anyway. But after that, I owe a lot to Jamie and Brownie [Tony Brown] in bringing out the best of me," he said

He went on to have a good Mitre 10 Cup and returned for the 2012 season to take opportunities with both hands.

"It ended up being a great year for myself," he said.

Joseph had pushed him in his development, and the competition with Cowan had been a factor in his advance, he said.

It had also been useful to develop relationships with Ben Smith and No.8 Elliott Dixon that helped him later in his career.

Smith said he was lucky that when realising what he required to do to advance several things had helped him. These included Forsyth Barr Stadium opening and the game plan the coaches wanted the Highlanders to play to, which had suited his style of game.

"If we were still playing at Carisbrook would my game have been as well [suited to] playing in the dewy weather, or would a more combative halfback have fitted. But having a roof, playing an up tempo style of game, we had a smaller forward pack and a nippier halfback that just wanted to keep pushing the tempo of play I think just suited me…it ended up getting me a shot at the All Blacks," he said.

Now, he said, he was experiencing what Cowan had been through as Folau Fakatava was starting to snap at his heels, but he enjoyed the feeling, and he was pleased Fakatava had committed himself to the Highlanders.

With the milestone behind him, Smith said he was still driven to help the Highlanders be the best they could be, and he had committed to another three years to achieve that. And he wanted to see Highlanders playing Test rugby, whether it was for the All Blacks, Samoa or Tonga.

"I don't want our boys to be happy just playing Super Rugby," he said.

Among his games, he felt the quarterfinal against the Chiefs in 2015, at home, had been one of his better games.

"Two years before we'd lost 10 games so from making the playoffs the year before to the belief of 2015, the team, that game at home, it was massive for our region, for the Highlanders to get that home playoff, and we won," he said.

It was then he realised the team could go all the way, and they did.

They played the Waratahs in the semifinal after the Sydneysiders had published social media comments that they couldn't wait for the next two weeks.

"They already thought they were in the final," he said.

While they had lost twice to the Hurricanes in the regular season, Smith recalled Joseph had said, 'the Hurricanes are the best team, but we only have to beat them once.' I thought in a leadership meeting that was pretty bold, but he was right. We didn't have to beat the Hurricanes every week, we just had to beat them in the final. He was right. That's the sort of mastermind Jamie Jo is."

Smith believes those days can come again, and that was his desire for the future. The talent attracted south was good, and there was a chance to reach play-offs and achieve their goals.

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