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Perenara emerges to seize NZ No.9 jumper

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 24/11/2016 Angelo Risso

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, on a semi-regular basis, likes to remind journalists that Aaron Smith is the best halfback in the world.

It's a statement that has its merits, with the Manawatu native's acceleration, quick-wittedness and trademark bullet pass making him one of rugby's premier No.9s.

It's also a statement TJ Perenara has no qualms accepting, for now.

The 24-year-old Hurricanes livewire has had to settle for a role on the bench for much of his All Blacks career, as Smith went from strength to strength for club and country.

But not this weekend, against the French, in the City of Lights.

Smith's recent travails, stemming from a September indiscretion in a Christchurch Airport toilet, have given the formerly unflappable halfback a major case of the yips.

A lukewarm return to action in his side's Chicago loss to Ireland was followed by an improved display in Rome, before a horror show in last week's Dublin revenge mission.

Having already knocked-on twice and thrown several errant passes, Smith was sent to the sin bin for repeated ruck infringements and ultimately hooked before the hour mark.

And with Hansen's patience wearing thin, Smith has been left on the bench for this weekend's clash with Les Bleus in favour of Perenara.

But Perenara told reporters on Thursday that despite his promotion to the run-on side, there was still only one man who could claim to be the best No.9 in the world.

"He's probably earned that, the way he's played footy over the past few years, he's been at the top of the game," the 28-cap Perenara told reporters.

"Firstly, you're proud of your teammate for having that aura, not only from his coaches but the rest of the world, but also it drives you to want that as well."

The selection over a fit and available Smith marks an impressive turnaround for Perenara, who fell from second to third-string No.9 at the beginning of 2016.

But an outstanding Super Rugby campaign with the Hurricanes saw the Wellington native reclaim his spot in the matchday squad, and use it as a springboard towards the starting XV.

Perenara said he, Smith and fellow scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow had developed a constructive relationship since last year's World Cup, sharing tips and tricks wherever possible.

Having faced the French several times before, including last year's World Cup quarter-final shellacking, Smith had already sounded out Perenara on what to expect.

Les Bleus' renowned power up front, coupled with the selection of three ball-carrying loose forwards, may make for a tough day at the office.

Starting the match, as opposed to coming off the bench, would also force Perenara to size up the contest on the fly.

"Aaron's the most experienced out of us all and regardless of who is starting, he'll come in and help us out and make sure we're prepared," Perenara said.

"I'm going to have to be that glue if they do make splits, if they do get offloads going, so just being alert for that part of the game."

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