Rugby World Cup: All Blacks great Aaron Smith showers understudy Roigard with praise before test debut

Rookie halfback Cam Roigard has won plenty of fans within the All Blacks camp since his call-up to the national side, chief among them the man who holds the jersey he hopes to eventually claim.

The Hurricanes phenom has been named to the bench for the All Blacks' first Bledisloe Cup clash in Melbourne on Saturday, where he's essentially a lock to make his test debut as Aaron Smith's back-up.

Smith - a 114-international veteran and arguably New Zealand's GOAT halfback - has seen plenty of nines in his 11 years at the top, and after spending time with Roigard through the All Blacks' pre-season and Rugby Championship camps, has given his latest understudy his coveted seal of approval.

While he's well familiar with Roigard's robust game through their head-to-head clashes at Super Rugby Pacific level, Smith admits he's been taken aback by what he's seen from the 22-year-old prospect on the training paddock.

"It's just been good to get to know him and he's had an outstanding couple of years," Smith said of the debutant in waiting.

"It's been cool to work with him… he sees the game a bit differently but he's got some amazing talent. He's a very strong and fast No. 9. He's a big, big boy and I'm excited to see him get a run.

"He's been tracking really well in camp and seeing how hard he works, his dedication [has been impressive]. 

"It's going to be really awesome to see him get a run and see him impact the game."

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

The Cambridge-product's form through Super Rugby Pacific almost demanded promotion to international level and he'll have his first chance to test his skillset on the big stage this weekend, after biding his time on the outer through the first two tests of the All Black's annual campaign.

Blues halfback Finlay Christie appears to have the inside running as Smith's back-up off the bench and with just three tests remaining until the World Cup, the stakes are even higher for Roigard at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground this weekend.

Smith says the competition between the three halfbacks in camp has been firm but fair, with the trio committed to ensuring the overall standard remains high by a unified approach to improvement.

With Smith set to exchange the NZ dollar for the Japanese yen next year, the carrot of becoming his successor in the black No. 9 jersey is also dangling large on the horizon.

Despite his wealth of experience, the Manawatu native admits he's still learning plenty from his younger cohort Roigard, who he says brings a new element to the ABs table.

"One thing you see with new guys coming in is they just play with their instincts a lot more," he explained. "Live in the moment and play in the moment.

"Even at today's training, seeing him see gaps and go. He's got the speed and the power.

"You can always learn, and I'm always watching other nines and how they do things - why did they do that and why did they take that option."

Roigard looked assured in his outings with the All Blacks XV in the UK and Ireland late last year and All Blacks coach Ian Foster is as enthusiastic as Smith to see what he'll offer at test level, where his combative approach promises to be well suited.

"It takes time to find your feet and he's settled in pretty well," said Foster of Roigard.

"His game through Super Rugby, we all saw his growth. He likes to attach the edges, he's got a good kicking game and a pretty consistent pass.

"He's been really focused on how he fits that into the plan and trained well, so I'm looking forward to seeing him."

Joining Roigard on the All Blacks bench will be Anton Lienert-Brown. The veteran midfielder has successfully had his three-match ban for dangerous contact reduced, meaning he'll get his first feel of the black jersey for 2023 in Victoria.

Plagued by a series of injuries, the past 18 months have been challenging for the Chiefs stalwart. But Foster notes Lienert-Brown has passed the character test that comes with such a stretch with flying colours and will add a valuable dose of experience off the pine this weekend.

"We all know the last couple of years he's had a few hurdles to climb," said Foster.

"While those stories are tough for players at the time,  I love those stories from the sense that  it grows character and perseverance, and we've seen that in him.

"He's trained well, he's desperate. He's had two weeks in jail, but through that he's prepared the team well and done his own work at a higher level.

"He's a player we've got a lot of faith in and I'm sure he'll be a little bit nervous. But he's just got to trust who he is and what he's done in this jersey and go and do it again."

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