11 Sep 2020

All Blacks relishing chance to put provincial pride on the line

11:59 am on 11 September 2020

The All Blacks are champing at the bit to play for their province.

All Black Aaron Smith scores a try


They don't typically feature in the Mitre 10 Cup due to international commitments, but with test rugby curtailed by Covid at the moment, they could well play the whole season.

Former All Black captain Kieran Read was born and raised in Papakura, and grew up watching Counties Manukau stars such as Jonah Lomu.

After spending most of his career with Canterbury Read signed with Counties in 2018, but never took the field.

"Jonah was my hero. He was the guy who really inspired me to play. To see him first hand and to see what he did around the community as well was huge. Counties is a place that's dear to my heart and to try and give back as much as I can to the region is what I'm really looking forward to doing."

Read, who'll start at No.8 this weekend, says playing for the Steelers is an ambition he thought he might never realise.

"I did not think I would get this opportunity. With what has happened around the world, I am back in New Zealand at the moment and to be honest, very fortunate to have this opportunity."

All Black prop Nepo Laulala shares similar sentiments, having played just one for Counties game despite being with team since 2016.

Nepo Laulala after the All Blacks' Rugby Championship victory over Argentina, 2015.

Nepo Laulala after the All Blacks' Rugby Championship victory over Argentina, 2015. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

There are plenty of teenagers and debutants in the provincial squads and Laulala is always happy to impart his wisdom.

"If they don't ask and I see something I will always step in and help them and give them some advice. Some of them are a bit shy sometimes though."

Laulala is quietly spoken and can come across as shy himself. "Not when it comes to my scrumming, haha."

Tomorrow Counties play last year's champions Tasman, who boast four All Blacks in their starting XV; prop Tyrel Lomax, loose forward Shannon Frizell, and outside backs Will Jordan and Sevu Reece.

Canterbury have five, while Auckland top the list with seven, including new caps Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke.

Manawatu have one test player in halfback Aaron Smith (they also have former test wing Nehe Milner-Skudder ).

He's been with them since 2008, but hasn't played for the Turbos for nine years.

"Full circle, mate. I started out here as a fresh 20-year-old and to be back nine years later is pretty weird, but I have always followed and loved Manawatu, I'm a very passionate Fielding boy and Manawatu boy and love where I'm from. It's exciting to be back in the area and I went to my Dad's for dinner last night."

Smith says his old man is equally as enthusiastic.

"My Dad says he's more excited to see me play in the green and white Manawatu jersey than any other jersey (All Blacks), haha. That's pretty cute and cool to hear and I'm just really excited to get out there."

There weren't any All Blacks in the Manawatu side when Smith started, but Aaron Cruden soon cracked it and Smith says the experience of training alongside a test player was invaluable.

"Cruden made the All Blacks in 2010 in my first couple of years with Manawatu. Him coming back to the team was cool and having that experience of being a teammate with him and watching his journey. I think that helped me transfer into the All Blacks because he was able to help me with what it was like to fit in."

Manawatu take on Northland and Smith's All Blacks teammate Jack Goodhue, who's back in Kauri country after spending his early career with Canterbury.

Jack Goodhue.

Jack Goodhue. Photo: PhotoSport

He's just re-signed with New Zealand rugby until the end of the next World Cup, but many fans will be disappointed the midfielder won't be sporting his trademark mullet.

"This is actually the reason why the mullet had to get cut. It didn't actually make it into the contract. It was actually the one thing that had to go upon signing haha. If we all band together as kiwis we can could get that changed in the contract I reckon, bring the mullet back."

Former All Blacks wing Julian Savea is back after returning from France and will play alongside his brother and current All Black Ardie for Wellington for the first time as last year's beaten finalists try to go one better.

Wellington also have All Blacks TJ Perenara, Asafo Aumua and Dane Coles, who is injured for this weekend's round.

The Lions first game is against Waikato and their two All Blacks, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, tomorrow night.