Rugby World Cup: Aaron Smith senses Cam Roigard pressure as race for All Blacks halfback spot heats up

Aaron Smith will likely go down as the All Blacks' greatest halfback of all-time, but he's not taking any selection for granted in France. 

The dizzying emergence of Cam Roigard has added a fresh injection of competition at All Blacks training over the past few weeks, as the rookie continues to stamp his mark on rugby's biggest stage. 

The Hurricanes half was the best on the field in his first test start against Namibia last weekend, conducting his side with an expertise beyond his years, while showcasing the crisp pass, robust running game, and explosive speed and power that have seen him tagged as one of the country's most promising talents. 

Aaron Smith and Cam Roigard at training.
Aaron Smith and Cam Roigard at training. Photo credit: Getty Images

Roigard may have done enough to usurp Finlay Christie as the clear back-up halfback and is probably now the natural successor to Smith, who'll bid 'sayonara' to New Zealand at the end of this year.  

The chorus for the Cambridge product to take hold of that sacred black No.9 jersey sooner rather than later is starting to gain volume and Smith admits it's added some extra spark at this week's training at Bordeaux, as they prepare for the Italians at Lyon next weekend. 

"There's a lot to like," Smith said of Roigard's maiden test start.  "I thought he handled the game and those moments and the conditions very well, and I don't think there's much about that game he could be disappointed about.

"Watching as one of the boys and a fellow halfback, I was really happy for him. He's been working really hard in the last four months to get an opportunity like that and to see him take it with two hands was great. 

"As me and Finlay were watching, it just brings - and you could feel it even at training - there's a genuine edge, genuine competition and that's really good for the team. 

"Any guy can wear the jersey and do the job. It keeps everyone on their toes, and nothing's given and everything's earned." 

The atypical size and strength Roigard offers at the position is well suited to test rugby, where halfbacks are often expected to operate as extra loose forwards, which often means ball can be recycled quicker to launch the next phase of attack.

He also boasts elite pace and the priceless ability to break a defensive line. 

Smith has forged his reputation on what the All Blacks refer to as 'LQB' (Lightning Quick Ball), critical to helping unlock the airtight, rush defences at the international level, but lacks the physicality and threat with ball in hand Roigard brings to the table. 

While coach Ian Foster and his fellow selectors are highly unlikely to rock their boat at this stage of their pinnacle event, Smith admits he's seeing something special in his understudy unique set of attributes. 

"As a No.9 in our All Blacks attack system, it's very much about moving the ball, playing with speed, but Cam had 2-3 opportunities and he absolutely nailed him. He set up tries and created opportunities for himself... and it was pretty cool to see him get over the line. 

Cam Roigard.
Cam Roigard. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I think he just sees the game a little bit differently. He taxis out, and has a look and feels.

"When you have the physical gifts he has, those sorts of opportunities become big ones - linebreaks and offloads. 

"His pure speed off the mark is pretty impressive. If anyone's body shape is slipping, he punishes it and he's big enough to win the contest as well 

"He's got all of the gifts." 

Currently on an off-week in their schedule, with Italy lurking around the corner, the All Blacks have taken the chance for relaxation, taking in the gastronomic delights of the region and - of course - a spot of golf. 

The additional charge to the batteries was on full display upon return to training, when Smith says the team lifted to the test-intensity that having a break in the schedule affords. 

Experimenting with new tactics at breakneck speed in scorching conditions has resulted in tempers flaring, Smith adds, which he believes bodes well for their prospects. 

"There's a fair bit of competitiveness and fire in the squad, which is really good, through every position really," Smith said.  

"When you swap in, you want to put your best foot forward and I think that can only bring out the best in our squad - genuine chip in the training room about who got who, who got done over and who missed what. 

"We're trying to really maximise those weeks to really get some improvements in our game to push forward in the coming weeks." 

"Having 30-odd players going hammer and tongs is quite fun. Tempers and emotions get up, but if you can build that resilience and hardness against your mates, it always puts you in good stead, when you play another opposition."