Highlanders coach Clarke Dermody praised Aaron Smith’s effort and preparation as he recorded his 350th first-class game in the 45-17 victory over Moana Pasifika on Friday night.
The 34-year-old halfback had another impressive performance as the Highlanders overcame a sloppy first half to become comfortable winners at Mt Smart Stadium.
Smith is 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 number of minutes he plays,” said Dermody after the game.
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“He’s not a bench player. He doesn’t play full games like that, 60-65 minutes a game, at a high pace.
“It’s a testament to the work he’s doing off the field. As he’s progressed in his career, he’s learned how to get the most out of his body in a week.”
Smith will head to Japan after the World Cup for one last big payday before hanging up the boots, but there are no signs of slowing down in his final season with the Highlanders.
Dermody says they manage Smith’s playing time to keep him at his best.
“We probably don’t go much longer than 60 minutes knowing how important he is to our whole season,” said Dermody.
“We are in a position with Folau (Fakatava) coming later in the game and where he can get around the ruck like he did. [against Moana Pasifika] and he made a few attempts to do so.
“They have a good balance and hopefully we can keep them going all 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 win in the end,” said Dermody.
“We didn’t play that great in the first half. We challenged the guys at half time for our mentality.
“Every time we got into 22 we scored and then we gave it back straight away.
“We doubted that at half time and the application in the second half was a lot better and it was very important to get double positive action and not let Moana Pasifika in because they are dangerous with the ball in hand.”
The Highlanders dominated at the scrum, with it being one of their best weapons as Moana Pasifika took numerous penalties on the set piece.
“It got us out of a lot of troubling sets. We used it to exit, which was nice to go to, to relieve the pressure,” Dermody said.
“It will be a good battle against the Hurricanes next week, because their scrum is also going well. Jamie Mackintosh has come in and done a great job for them. So it will be a great challenge that the boys are up for.”
The loss was Moana Pasifika’s sixth in a row and the gap between them and the top eight teams on the points list threatens to become too big to stay in contention for the playoffs.
However, after last week’s 59-0 thrashing by the Hurricanes, this was an improved performance.
“We asked the guys to be decisive and you can only be decisive when you see pictures and I thought we saw a lot of pictures,” said Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger.
“The attack was excellent, we found space, a lot of space. Whether that was through the middle, choose and go, the ball out the back, or find space with our cross kicks.
“Our defense has been good in patches and inconsistent in other times. So a few mistakes really hurt us.
“The Highlanders took their chances as we weren’t quite there in that area and they used their scrum really well to turn the tide and put pressure on us.
“I thought those two areas were the difference, the scrum and the first-up tackles.”
The scoring spiraled out of control with the Highlanders scoring three tries in the last 15 minutes and dropping out at the end of games has been a problem for Moana Pasifika in recent weeks.
“Jeff Wilson said (on Sky Sport) that we missed six or seven tackles in the first 60 minutes and another six or seven after that,” said Mauger.
“All those tackles were crucial and a lot of it comes down to capacity. We need to keep stopping and squeezing as much out of our guys as possible.
“If we can create enough ball and make those first tackles then we have shown that our offense is good enough to score points.”