Rugby World Cup: Hometown hero Aaron Smith reflects on 'special' All Blacks farewell in Dunedin

For a fleeting moment, departing All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith seemed he might close the book on his hall-of-fame test career in New Zealand in storybook fashion.

With two minutes to play and scores locked between the All Blacks and Wallabies, the hometown hero burst clear down the blindside, bringing Forsyth Barr Stadium to its feet for one final time in his illustrious 12-year tenure in both the black and blue jerseys.

Smith admits he'd shared the Dunedin faithful's vision - albeit briefly.

"Probably for about two seconds, then their winger caught me in about two strides," Smith recalled. "Thought I'd better step in."

Ultimately, it didn't matter. The All Blacks cashed in their penalty advantage at the ensuing ruck and Richie Mo'unga stepped up to do the rest, banging over the matchwinning penalty to remain unbeaten in 2023 and break green-and-gold hearts.

The season has been full of farewells for the 118-test stalwart, who will head to Japan after the upcoming World Cup to take up a long-term deal at Toyota Verblitz.

Smith set the tone by leading one final rendition of 'Kapa O Pango' under the roof, where his No. 9 jersey deserves to be hung from the rafters... or at least, as Wallabies first-five Quade Cooper suggested last week, a bronze statue in his likeness at the entrance - a fitting tribute to New Zealand's undisputed greatest-ever halfback.

Smith, 34, had done his best to block out the noise and sentimentality around his last test week in Aotearoa, which just happened to be in the city, where he's become a cult figure as the talisman for Super Rugby's Highlanders.

When he replaced Finlay Christie in the 54th minute, the reality of the occasion sunk in.

"The whole week has been great," Smith said. "Running on and hearing the people cheer was pretty special, and something that will stick with me forever.

"I'm a blessed man, and I owe a lot to this city and this stadium."

Smith was at his vintage best, immediately making his presence felt with activity around the fringes of the ruck and his lightning delivery, which helped unleash a backline that had been suffocated by an urgent Wallabies defence.

That injection off the bench, among a wealth of fellow veterans, helped swing the tide of a finely poised contest to the All Blacks' favour, as their 17-3 deficit transformed to a 23-20 victory.

Asked to play an unfamiliar part off the pine, Smith says he was locked in on nailing that task and not letting the inevitable emotion cloud his judgment on the field.

Aaron Smith in action during Bledisloe II.
Aaron Smith in action during Bledisloe II. Photo credit: Getty Images

"My role was different this week, so I didn't want to get too up for it, too over the top," he noted. "When you have those feelings, it's about trying to acknowledge it, but stay focused on the task at hand.

"For me, the game was in the balance when I came on, so I didn't want to overplay, didn't want to try too hard. 

"I just really wanted to come on and bring energy, and try to bring a bit of accuracy and calm. I was trying to shift momentum back in our favour."

The result was the cherry on the top of an impressive resurgence, so far this year, with just one test - likely to resemble more of an exhibition - against South Africa at London's Twickenham Stadium remaining, before the real World Cup business begins in France.

While the win wasn't as emphatic as the previous four this season, Smith insists the experience was precisely the trial under fire the team needed heading into September's showpiece.

"To dig ourselves out of a bit of a hole was cool. Massively proud of the effort.

"It's not how you always want to be, but it's nice to see that it's in there. There's a lot of learning in there for us. 

"It was pretty ugly at times, but sometimes those are the ones you remember more - the ones when you do enough to win - and tonight was that."