FROM the doghouse to the penthouse, Aaron Smith ended his Test match week significantly better than the way he started it.
Chastised and penalised earlier in the week after breaking a curfew following the scrappy victory over Argentina in Wellington, the All Blacks halfback responded in the best manner possible.
He came off the bench, to which he had been demoted following his Wellington indiscretions, and the 23-year-old home-town Highlander imprinted himself all over another combative, competitive Test match against the old enemy from South Africa. But for Smith's magical try midway through the second half, the New Zealanders might have struggled to secure the victory they did, two tries to one, to all but secure the world champions the inaugural Rugby Championship title.
The halfback brilliantly sized up the situation from a ruck 20-odd metres out, spotted big Flip van der Merwe in front of him, slipped around him with ease and had the skill and the gas to leave the cover defence for dead.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said Smith's all-round performance was the response he expected.
"He really had only one response he could deliver to be satisfied, and that was to come out and play well, and he certainly did that," Hansen said. "He scored a great try and he came out and made a difference."
Smith's try took an 8-8 deadlock to 15-8 and when Boks replacement prop Dean Greyling was sin-binned soon after for a cheap shot on Richie McCaw at a ruck, it was always going to be a long haul back for the Boks. They briefly threatened when a Johan Goosen penalty got them back to within four, but two Aaron Cruden penalties secured a victory for the All Blacks that was every bit as hard-earned as it looked.
Skipper McCaw, who ended the match hobbling badly, was huge for the New Zealanders, demonstrating all his qualities in his 110th Test. Luke Romano had another impressive outing in the black jersey up front, while Israel Dagg – the other try-scorer on the night – Cory Jane and Smith off the bench all showed their class when clear-cut opportunities were few and far between.
The Springboks would have been kicking themselves after missing a gilt-edged try chance in the fifth minute when a Francois Hougaard toe-through should have served up a try wide on the right to Habana. When ball was shifted right only a shocking final pass behind the winger denied the visitors a certain five-pointer.
That ended up being the story of the first 40 minutes for the South Africans, who should have taken a lead into the sheds, but instead trailed 5-3 after Morne Steyn missed three of his four shots at goal, and Frans Steyn was astray with two more from long range.
The All Blacks did score the only try of the half just shy of the 20-minute mark courtesy of a fabulous counter-attack off a deep Boks kick. Dagg was the scorer, after featuring four times in the movement, though two quite brilliant offloads by Sam Whitelock and then Kieran Read created the opportunity for the fullback to race clear from 30 metres out.
But, frustratingly, that was the only clear opportunity carved by the New Zealanders over a half where they played a clear second fiddle to the South Africans.
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said his side had the right plan but did not have the execution.
"We put them under a lot of pressure in the first half, especially when it was still 5-3, but you have to convert that pressure into points," he said.
"That's the difference between the sides."
NEW ZEALAND 21 (Israel Dagg, Aaron Smith tries Aaron Cruden con 3 pens) bt SOUTH AFRICA 11 (Bryan Habana try Johan Goosen, Morne Steyn pens) at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Referee: George Clancy.