Aaron Smith has had an early reminder of the standards that go along with being an All Black, the young Manawatu halfback benched for Saturday’s test against the Springboks for breaking a team recovery protocol.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen confirmed this morning at the team hotel in Dunedin Smith had been ineligible for a starting role at Dunedin ‘s covered Forsyth Barr Stadium because of a breach in discipline following last Saturday’s test victory over Argentina in the capital.
“Unfortunately for Aaron Smith we’ve got a strong focus on recovery and he broke a protocol in that area last week, so that made him ineligible for selection for the first XV,” said Hansen in announcing a starting lineup featuring four changes.
Veteran No 9 Piri Weepu replaces the 23-year-old at halfback, while the other switches from Wellington see hometown boy Andrew Hore get the start at hooker, Canterbury’s Sam Whitelock given the nod in the second row ahead of Brodie Retallick and standout Chiefs loosie Liam Messam restored at No 6.
But it’s Smith’s demotion, and the reasons for the six-test rookie’s relegation, that is the chief talking point ahead of the opening clash for the year against the Springboks.
Hansen refused to spell out whether Smith’s indiscretion had been alcohol-related, or involved him breaking curfews.
“There’s nothing to elaborate on,” said the first-year head coach. “He just broke a protocol that’s a non-negotiable and the consequence is you don’t start in the XV if you break it.”
It’s understood Smith’s infraction involved him arriving back to the team hotel after Saturday night’s game past the team-imposed curfew.
Hansen said it was “irrelevant” whether Smith would have started without his protocol breach. “He broke them, so we don’t need to go there. The other fella played pretty good last week as well, and we’re very fortunate we’ve got two good halfbacks.
“We addressed it as a team. The leadership group set the protocol and management drive it.”
Asked if Smith, who’s been so impressive throughout his freshman campaign, had been disappointed by his actions, the coach could only nod in agreement.
“I don’t think he wanted to give up his jersey lightly. It’s been dealt with, it’s not something that’s a major but it was a non-negotiable. It’s like your family – if you have rules there are consequences if you break them. That’s the way we’re living, and we make no excuse for that.”
Hansen said his three other starting changes had been relatively straightforward.
“We’ve got two quality hookers, either one could have started, but Kevvy [Mealamu] has carried a lot of the workload so it’s time for Horey to step up and do that.
“Last week we said that Retallick was playing better than Whitelock, and he’s responded particularly well to the performance message and came out and played well. That’s allowed us to look after Brodie – he’s a young player who doesn’t necessarily have to start every test at this stage of his career.”
And Messam’s return had been pretty clearly sign-posted after the Chiefs leader’s outstanding form in 2012.
“He’s bringing a consistency of high quality performance,” added Hansen.. “There’s just a little bit more physicality there than we were getting off Victor [Vito]. He’s comfortable in his own skin at the moment and is playing particularly well.”
Weepu, who will earn his 63rd test cap, said he was determined to make the most of the opportunity that has come his way.
“Everyone wants to be part of the starting lineup – that’s why you do all the hard work. This is my chance and I’ll be trying to make most of this on Saturday night. I’ve been doing everything I can to be in the starting lineup, and it’s a good opportunity for myself.”
Young five-eighth Aaron Cruden also retains the No 10 jersey with Dan Carter still out injured, while rookie Wellington wing Julia Savea stays on the left wing ahead of the unwanted Hosea Gear. Tamati Ellison also gets the outside backs bench position this week ahead of Ben Smith.
Hansen is also not expecting the Springboks challenge to be any different than is usually served up, never mind some indifferent recent form and a host of new faces in their squad.
“You don’t go too far away from your strengths do you? They’ve clearly underlined what their strengths are — it’s a kick-chase game, and a lot of driving and physicality up front. I can’t imagine them wanting to change that, but you’ve got to expect the unexpected as well.”
Sounds like Piri Weepu’s kind of game. Maybe things happen for a reason.
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Tamati Ellison.