Emotional send-off for Smith in final Highlanders home game

rugby26 May 2023 12:37| © AFP
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Aaron Smith © Getty Images

All Blacks great Aaron Smith had a fairytale send-off in his final home game for the Highlanders on Friday with a last-gasp 35-30 win over the Reds.

Victory in the penultimate round of Super Rugby Pacific not only ensured the 34-year-old departed Dunedin on a winning note but kept the New Zealand side in the hunt for a quarterfinal place.

In the other Friday game, the Melbourne Rebels scored eight tries in a 52-14 romp over Western Force to also keep alive their slim hopes of making the last eight.

The Highlanders looked destined for defeat and a disappointing end to their season, but a try from Smith's heir apparent Folau Fakatava in the final minute sparked celebrations instead.

Mercurial scrum-half Smith is bound for Japan and Toyota Verblitz after the World Cup in France, with his 184th appearance for the Highlanders his last on home turf.

Close to tears, he was presented with the match ball after the game and the team performed a haka to send him off.

"This win means everything," he said.

"I've always wanted to kind of leave on my own terms, sort of still performing and not feel like you get shuffled out. I feel this year is the right time for me (to leave) and who knows what the future holds."

Smith made his debut for the Dunedin-based outfit in 2011 and is the franchise's most-capped player ever. He has also made 114 appearances for the All Blacks.

"It's all I've known in my adult life. I've been here (Dunedin) since I was 21, and now I'm 34. Where did that go? I've just had a hell of a ride," he told New Zealand media ahead of the match.

"All the great things in my life have happened down here – around rugby anyway. It's going to be weird not coming back to Dunners after the (All Blacks) season. I don't think I've got my head around that.

"I'll leave knowing that I gave everything," he added. "That's the best thing, knowing there's no regrets."

The Reds raced to a 14-0 lead and stretched it to 21-14 at the break thanks to a try from Suliasi Vunivalu just before the hooter.

But the home side battled back with second-half tries from Saula Ma'u and Connor Garden-Bachop to lead 28-27 with 12 minutes left.

Tom Lynagh slotted a long-range penalty for the Reds with six minutes remaining to again put them in front before Fakatava's late try after a period of sustained pressure won the game for the home side.

In Melbourne, eight different players dotted down for the Rebels, with Wallabies centre Reece Hodge nailing six conversions in his final home game before moving to French club Bayonne after the World Cup.