Aaron Smith cites 'life balance' for bucking All Blacks departure trend

Aaron Smith looks on during the Highlanders' Super Rugby clash with the Hurricanes in Wellington, March 8, 2019 Mark Tantrum/Getty Images

Aaron Smith has set his sights on playing 100 Tests for the All Blacks, after bucking the trend of his countrymen and re-signing with New Zealand Rugby beyond this year's World Cup.

It's a proposition he could be a little further towards, too, had he come to understand a little sooner that of what he knows now: that drinking beer and eating junk food isn't a great way to reach your goals.

Smith will stay in the blue and gold of the Highlanders until at least the end of 2021 after resisting the overtures of Japanese rugby to remain in Dunedin, a city he says is now home after making the move from Manawatu back in 2011.

Part of the Hurricanes' wider system at that point, Smith says he wasn't quite willing to do what it takes to play professional rugby back then and that the Wellington-based franchise was right not to sign him to a Super Rugby deal.

"I wish I could go back and tell that fulla to start running and stop eating crap, and stop drinking heaps of piss and just knuckle down," Smith told reporters on Monday. "But that's sort of what I had to learn, the Hurricanes were right and I wasn't in a position to be playing Super Rugby at the time, I needed to take a good look in the mirror."

That period of reflection was aided by a six-month stint in Auckland with the Blues, before he caught the eye of then-Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph during the 2011 ITM Cup. Given two days to make a decision on whether to pack his bags and head south, Smith took a leap of faith and hasn't looked back.

"The Hurricanes, they said to me they'd wait to the end of the season to make their decision, but Jamie offered me my dream in Round 2 of that ITM [Cup], so it was a pretty easy decision to make," Smith said. "I found it quite exciting, too; at the time my mum and dad said you probably need to get out of Manawatu and get out of that bubble. And coming down here was probably the best thing that happened to me; out of my comfort zone, I met a good bunch of lads but also got to learn behind Jimmy Cowan for a year.

"And Jamie, and then this stadium [Forsyth Barr] came along and I think I was just really lucky where the stadium suited the way I liked to play. Jamie was quite influential in trying to help me express my game and he believed in me enough to give me the motivation to play my game, and I didn't have to get bigger or faster or stronger. I just had to play my game and use my unique skills to play Super Rugby and, as I said, just very lucky."

Smith was vital in helping the Highlanders win a maiden Super Rugby title in 2015 while, at Test level, he remains a key part of Steve Hansen's All Blacks backline.

But there has been adversity, too, not least of which was Smith's Christchurch airport misadventure that saw him suspended for one Test in 2016. The renowned All Blacks culture took a hit as a result, and Smith stepped away from the honour of leading the haka.

Still, Smith managed to work through that mistake with his partner, Teagan, the couple now engaged and expecting a baby later this year.

"It's kind of funny, in the last two or three months I've been talking to a lot of fathers about what's to come and what to prep for; no-one ever talks about the pregnancy, though, so that's been a tough three months. So it's pretty fun, just bite your lip and take it," he said. "I can't wait for the baby to come."

With a better balance in life, Smith hopes his best rugby still lies ahead. A starting position at the All Blacks is never guaranteed, particularly when someone like TJ Perenara is breathing down your neck, and Smith first has to shake off an ankle injury that has him sidelined from Super Rugby.

"Week to week, it feels pretty good, the boot is mainly so I can move around as fast as I like to move, I don't think it'll be six weeks."

With co-captains Ben Smith and Luke Whitelock moving on from the Highlanders at the end of the year, and Liam Squire heading for Japan, Smith's retention is vital for the 2015 Super Rugby champions.

The deal finally done, just don't expect him to mark it with a celebratory beer.