Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody praised Aaron Smith’s commitment and preparation after he played his 350th first class game in the 45-17 win over Moana Pasifika on Friday night.
The 34-year-old halfback had yet another impressive performance as the Highlanders overcame a sloppy first half to end up comfortable winners at Mt Smart Stadium.
Smith has become the fifth New Zealand player to reach that milestone, joining Liam Messam, Wyatt Crocket, Sir Colin Meads and Keven Mealamu.
“It’s amazing, because of the amount of minutes he plays,” Dermody said after the game.
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“He’s not a bench player. He plays if not full games, 60-65 minutes every game, at a high pace.
“It’s a testament to the work he does off the field. As he’s progressed through his career, he’s learnt how to get the most out of his body in the week.”
Smith will head to Japan after the World Cup for one last big payday before hanging up the boots, but there have been no signs of him slowing down in his final season with the Highlanders.
Dermody says they’re managing Smith’s game time to keep him at his best.
“We probably don’t go much longer than 60 minutes, knowing how important he is for our whole season,” Dermody said.
“We’re in a position with Folau (Fakatava) coming on later in the game where he can work around the ruck like he did [against Moana Pasifika] and he set a couple of tries up doing that.
“They’re a good balance and hopefully we can keep them going for the whole season.”
The Highlanders only held a 19-17 lead at halftime and although they came away with a win and a bonus point, it wasn’t a convincing first half.
“It was nice to get a win in the end,” Dermody said.
“We didn’t play that great in the first half. We challenged the boys at halftime around our mentality.
“Every time we’d get in the 22 we’d score and then we’d give it back straight away.
“We questioned that at halftime and the application in the second half was a lot better and being able to get double positive action was really important and not allowing Moana Pasifika in, because they’re dangerous with the ball in hand.”
The Highlanders dominated at the scrum, with it being one of their best weapons as Moana Pasifika conceded numerous penalties at the set piece.
“It got us out of a lot of troubling sets, we were using it to exit, which was nice to go to, to relieve pressure,” Dermody said.
“It will be a good battle next week against the Hurricanes, because their scrum has been going well too. Jamie Mackintosh has come in and done a great job for them. So it will be a good challenge the boys will get up for.”
The defeat was Moana Pasifika’s sixth in a row and the gap between them and the top eight teams on the points table is in danger of growing too large to stay in contention for the playoffs.
However, after the 59-0 thrashing at the hands of the Hurricanes last week, this was an improved performance.
“We asked the boys to be decisive and you can only be decisive if you’re seeing pictures and I thought we saw lots of pictures,” Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger said.
“The attack was outstanding, we found space, a lot of space. Whether that was through the middle, pick and go, the ball out the back, or finding space with our cross kicks.
“Our defence was good in patches and inconsistent in other times. So a couple of lapses really hurt us.
“The Highlanders took their opportunities through us not being quite on in that area and they used their scrum really well, to turn the screw and put us under pressure.
“I thought those two areas were the difference, the scrum and the first up tackles.”
The scoreline blew out with the Highlanders scoring three tries over the last 15 minutes and dropping off at the end of games has been an issue for Moana Pasifika in recent weeks.
“Jeff Wilson was saying (on Sky Sport) we missed six or seven tackles over the first 60 minutes and another six or seven after,” Mauger said.
“All of those tackles were critical and a lot of that comes down to capacity. We’ve got to keep plugging away and squeeze as much as we can out of our boys.
“If we can create enough ball and make those first up tackles, then we’ve shown our attack is good enough to score points.”