'Little man Luka' helps lift Smith to another level

All Blacks scrum-half reminds everyone why he is the world’s best - and says he was playing not just for his team, but for his infant son too.

TOKYO, 20 Oct - Aaron Smith contemplated one of the great triumphs of his career and recognised that Ireland had been caught up in the All Blacks' "perfect storm" in Saturday's World Cup quarter-final.

He was too modest to suggest it, but right at the eye of that storm was Smith himself, directing New Zealand's 46-14 triumph at Tokyo Stadium from the base of the scrum, capped by two early incisions to the try-line, pictured above and below, made with surgical precision in this most clinical of victories.

After a performance that reminded everyone that, at 30 years old, he remains the best No.9 in the world, Smith dedicated his masterclass to his two-month-old son, reckoning that he had been inspired to deliver something special because his fiancee Tegan Voykovich had taken baby Luka to watch dad in action for the first time.

"I think a lot of it was just trying to put a performance out there that represented my little boy," said Smith. "(He was) in the grandstand for the first time, I could feel him there. With Tegan there, my little boy there, I was really happy I put in a performance that hopefully he can be proud of... One day (I) can look back, and say, 'You were there little man, you helped me get that win that night'."

In his 90th test, Smith's cobra-like strikes in the first 20 minutes proved decisive, quickly putting Ireland in a position from which there was no way back in the face of the All Blacks' suffocating defence and irrepressible attacking combinations.

Those tries came, he revealed, after he had studied film of some of his recent performances. "I put a lot of preparation into how I wanted to impact this game, looking a lot at footage of chances around the breakdown.

"I get a bit of stick for not running more but I'm always a person who runs when it's on. I was hunting out opportunities for other guys, but created one for myself (when he darted through a defensive hole created by his forwards' carries) and, then, the second one was just off the cuff (as he burrowed through on the blindside). I'm just really happy I took them."

There were numerous All Blacks who could easily have taken the Player of the Match honour that was eventually awarded, for the second time in the tournament, to Beauden Barrett. Richie Mo’unga controlled the game beautifully at No.10, Sevu Reece was a constant thorn both on and off his wing, captain Kieran Read and Ardie Savea were colossal in the back-row battle and Joe Moody had a thundering game at prop.

Yet when Smith recycles with such speed and precision, creating the relentless tempo that puts non-stop pressure on defences, he is the one calling the shots.

"He changes the dynamics of how a team has to defend," said an admiring Mo'unga. "Because they have to all of a sudden take into consideration a nine like 'Nugget' just sniping around as well as the forwards. It was awesome for him just to see gaps and snipe around there."

Smith helped raise everyone else's game too. "We were fresh and really hungry," he said. "There were a lot of nerves and a lot of edge. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be ready, a lot of work into our mental game. Maybe it was a perfect storm of emotion."

RNS ic/bo/ajr