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The rebuilding of Aaron SmithSave
By Gregor Paul
Aaron Smith was a broken man by November last year. Not physically, but mentally he was shattered by the sheer exhaustion of living with the consequences of his ill-judged actions at Christchurch Airport.
That mental fatigue consumed him - it overwhelmed him and, by the time he started the penultimate test of the year against Ireland, it was apparent he wasn't able to play like his true self.
He played as if he was Atlas, holding the weight of the world above him. The All Blacks had no choice but to drop him to the bench for the final test. TJ Perenara couldn't be denied for any longer and Smith had to deal with the added burden of finishing the season as the All Blacks' second choice halfback.
"It is right for the team," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen explained when he revealed the starting line up to play the French in Paris.
"We have given Nuggie [Smith] the opportunity, and he has been through a tough time. Clearly it has knocked his confidence a bit.
"To be in the limelight as he is, and have to deal with all that, along with his partner Teagan, it has been horrifically tough."
It had been a long, hard fall for Smith. He'd been brilliant against the Boks the day before his indiscretion and 12 weeks later he couldn't wait for the season to end; to sneak back to New Zealand and begin the process of rebuilding himself.
More than anything, Smith just needed to be out of the public eye - left in peace to restore some kind of normality to his life.
"Give him time and he will come back," reckoned Hansen. "He is a good man, he is a good rugby player. And 2017 will be a new year."
So many times in the past Hansen has been right about his players. He's got some kind of sixth sense - an uncanny knack of predicting how individuals are likely to respond.
And, in the case of Smith, he's most probably right. His problem late last year was that he had no confidence. He played as if he doubted his own ability - and it appeared as if his doubts prevented him from trusting his instincts and keeping his game fluid and simple.
That much was obvious because he has done that before. He made that mistake during Super Rugby in 2013, although it wasn't a lack of confidence that was afflicting him. Back then he took too much on, made himself responsible for elements of the Highlanders' game-plan that weren't really his to worry about.
It was a different route to the wrong place but the destination was still the same and in 2013, much the same as in late 2016, Smith over-thought his job and shifted away from the hand-on-the-ball-whisk-it-away routine that he was on the field to do.
"I really enjoyed that year, 2012, and I didn't switch off," Smith said last year before he won his 50th cap against Wales.
"I had about two weeks off after the end-of-year tour and I had hurt my knee. I did my rehab and then I just kept training.
"I added a lot more baggage to my game and I didn't need that. I wouldn't say I was the only problem with the Highlanders but I wasn't helping and it didn't help my game. So that was the one lesson I learned from that - it was 'be me and do the things that made me, me'. Which was clear the ball and run but also the fact that you need a break. One good thing was that Steve [Hansen] rang me and said, 'mate, get rid of it all and be you'."
He has bounced back once before and while it will be tough, it would be a surprise if he doesn't do it again. It's not as if he's a speed-based athlete trying to recover from major leg surgery.
He's in the prime of his life physically and the key to him recovering his form in Super Rugby is having no other thought than to nail his core roles for the Highlanders.
Hansen will have no doubt offered such advice already, while also reminding Smith that he doesn't need to make any dramatic statements with the quality of his play in the first weeks of the competition.
What made Smith an All Black was the speed at which he arrived to clear the ball and the speed and accuracy at which he then passed the ball.
The simplicity of his game is his genius and, at his best, he's a sight to behold: a player with enormous influence.
The All Blacks want him to return to being that player. In truth, they probably need him back to being that players because, for all that Perenara advanced last year, his abilities are not in the same league.
Smith, at his best, enables the All Blacks to play at a tempo few sides can match. When Smith is on, as he was so often in the early part of last year, the All Blacks become this black wall of destruction.
He can open defences with the length of his passing. He can drain defences with his speed to the breakdown and incessant desire to keep the ball moving. He makes the All Blacks a better team and that's why Hansen is hopeful Smith is going to rebuild himself this year and return to being the player he was.