New Zealand-1698318831027
New Zealand's blindside flanker Shannon Frizell (centre) takes part in a training session at the Stade du Parc in Rueil-Malmaison, near Paris . Image Credit: AFP

Paris: Aaron Smith will bow out of international rugby after the World Cup final against South Africa on Saturday, leaving a gaping hole at the heart of the All Blacks team.

The 34-year-old scrum-half has well and truly cemented his place in New Zealand rugby folklore, praised across the board for his infectious passion for the oval ball game.

Smith made his All Blacks debut against Ireland in June 2012 and quickly established himself as the first choice halfback for the national team.

He has gone on to win 124 caps and was instrumental in the New Zealand squad that won the 2015 World Cup.

Special place

“He has a special place in my heart because of his passion; the way he applies himself every single day is for the betterment of the team,” said defence coach Scott McLeod.

“He is an absolute professional on and off the field. He gets his body right and his mind right and he gives it nothing short of 100 per cent every single time.”

McLeod added: “The passion and willingness he shows is contagious. I just think the world of him, really.”

Smith, who two years ago became the first All Black of Maori heritage to reach the 100-cap landmark, is often the leader of the pre-match haka.

Known for his outstanding technical nous, with an unmatched passing game and an effective kicking arsenal, Smith remains a danger around the base of the ruck and in open play.

He was outstanding in last week’s 44-6 semi-final thumping of Argentina, the scrum-half darting over for one of the New Zealanders’ seven tries.

Shoulders of giants

All Blacks scrum coach Jason Ryan said the ultra-competitive Smith would leave a “pretty special” legacy behind.

“He has been right up there as the best half-back in the world for a long time,” Ryan said.

“He’s a phenomenal man. I’ve always had so much respect for ‘Nug’ and the way he played the game from when I was involved in Super Rugby.

“Just his energy and the way he challenges and barks at his forward pack is good, he keeps everyone honest.”

Ryan added: “He leaves not only a great legacy. He is a great New Zealander, to be fair.”

For Smith, it was more a question of focusing on Saturday’s final at the Stade de France than dwelling on the past.

“This is the dream, to be in the dance, to make the final and give ourselves an opportunity,” he said.

“We’ve got a chance of winning the World Cup and that’s what you dream of as a rugby player.”

Important steps

Smith said their opening pool loss to France had been but one step en route to the final.

“We knew the World Cup wouldn’t be won on that night. It was just the first game and it was about us positioning ourselves to make a quarter-final. The last two steps have been really important,” he said.

Flanker Dalton Papali’i said the squad were hell-bent on producing their best for the exiting All Blacks, with Smith to be joined by locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in bowing out of the international scene.

“For a lot of the leaders it is like their last rodeo,” Papali’i said.

“We want to do it for ourselves but also for those boys who have led the way. We are standing on the back of their history and we want to send them off on a high note.

“There are a few leaders in the team, it’s going to be their last game in the jersey so it’s a big game for us.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants.”