8 Jul 2021

Smith earns All Blacks captaincy, will Fiji be any better than Tonga?

6:18 pm on 8 July 2021

Halfback Aaron Smith will captain the All Blacks for the first time this weekend, overcoming some off field indiscretions earlier in his career to complete his rise to the top.

Aaron Smith says see you later.

Aaron Smith playing for the Highlanders. He'll captain the All Blacks against Fiji. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Smith will lead the All Blacks against Fiji in Dunedin on Saturday and the question is, will the Flying Fijians pose a bigger challenge than the under strength Tongans who overcame a mountain of obstacles just to field a team last week at Mt Smart?

The All Blacks coach Ian Foster has made 13 changes to his starting XV from the one that crushed Tonga and he said Smith deserves the right to captain the side against Fiji.

"He's earned it. He's a big part of our whole leadership group, he's grown to become an outstanding preparer for a Test match and we've watched his leadership through the Highlanders and we thought he did a great job there as well, so it gives us a lot of confidence to give him that title."

It will be the Highlanders star's 98th test for New Zealand and Foster said Smith has been a vital part of the All Blacks for a decade.

However the halfback almost kneecapped his own career. in 2012 he was benched ahead of a test against South Africa in Dunedin for missing a team curfew.

In 2016 he was given a formal warning and stood down by New Zealand Rugby for serious misconduct after having sex with a woman in a Christchurch airport toilet before the All Blacks were due to fly to South Africa.

Smith has said in the past that he's learnt from those mistakes and has become a better rugby player and a better person.

Beauden Barrett, who starts at first-five this weekend, said Smith is the ultimate team man and a fierce competitor.

"He's always been very energetic and that passion and desire has always been there but one thing that stands out is his internal drive is, whatever it is, it makes him tick, he's always the one out there doing the extras, he's always offering advice, he's always asking how he can get better which is inspiring."

Barrett's selection in place of Richie Mo'unga is one of many changes made to the All Blacks starting XV, with Jordie Barrett at fullback and David Havili at second five. There's a new front row, including the side's only debutant Ethan de Groot and a new locking duo that marks the return of Brodie Retallick. The loose forwards have all been swapped out, with Ethan Blackadder at openside.

Beauden Barrett has been sporting two black eyes this week and he revealed today it was Blackadder who did the damage.

"I was warned about Ethan Blackadder when he first came into camp and found out about that pretty quick, so got to stay well clear of them at training."

Ethan Blackadder during a New Zealand All Blacks training session in Auckland on 29 June ahead of the test match against Tonga.

Photo: Photosport / Andrew Cornaga

Retallick is back 18 months after last playing a test and spending a stint playing in Japan.

"I'm a little bit nervous, to be fair," Retallick said. "It's been a wee while since the 2019 World Cup, but it's been good.

"We had the camp in Auckland, and being around the team last week preparing for a test. I am a little bit nervous, but I'm also excited to get out there and get back into the test arena, that's for sure."

Foster is warning his side that Fiji will be a much sterner challenge than Tonga, with their best players available.

"A little bit of a contrast to last week. They've (Fiji) got a lot of players coming back from Europe who have been playing regularly. They've got a lot of quality players in those European competitions. They're are growing team, we saw that in 2019 during the World Cup where they really pushed Aussie and Wales I think it was. So, they can play."

The Fiji born All Blacks wing Sevu Reece will start on Saturday and he revealed earlier this week that he was close to committing to his country of heritage for the 2019 World Cup, when he was contacted by then Fiji coach John McKee.

"He gave me a call I as going to catch up with him, but we're just texting, and to be fair I was probably about 'this close' to playing for Fiji because the talent we've got here in New Zealand is just crazy."

While he's very much looking forward to sharing the field with his Fijian brothers, Reece expects the All Blacks Fijian trio of himself, prop George Bower and No.8 Hoskins Sotutu to have bullseyes on their backs.

"I was joking to George Bower and Hoskins [Sotutu], coz those are our two other Fijians and I told them if we do get the chance to play Fiji, we'll probably be the running target around here."

While New Zealand basks in relative Covid safety, the same can't be said about Fiji, where a record 791 positive cases and three more deaths were recorded in the 24 hours before 8am Wednesday.

The Fiji wing and former Crusaders star Nemani Nadolo, says they will dedicate Saturday's game to their nation as they continue to battle coronavirus.

"We've got a lot of fuel to go out there, a lot of motivation. Our people back home in Fiji are struggling with the current epidemic.

"Obviously we're here away from our families, the sacrifice that we've had to do to put our hands up and come and represent Fiji, so I think people don't understand the severity of what we've had to do to come here, to be quarantined."

It's been 10 years since Fiji last played the All Blacks, with New Zealand winning that game 60-14.

So, will fans see another one sided affair like they did last week against Tonga, or have Fiji managed to buck the trend of tier two nations and close that gap in the last decade?