Few World Cup opening matches can have been so highly anticipated as Friday’s blockbuster between hosts France and New Zealand and the clash of scrumhalves Antoine Dupont and Aaron Smith looks like being an intriguing subplot.
Dupont, 26, enters his second World Cup as captain of an expectant host nation and widely regarded as one of the best players in the world, certainly pre-eminent among test halfbacks.
That is a position that Smith once held but the dusting of grey in his hair would suggest that his third World Cup will be his last, even if he had not already confirmed that he will be heading to Japan after the tournament.
Over 119 tests in the famous black shirt, Smith has won everything in the game, including the 2015 World Cup, and is far too long in the tooth to start building up his face off with Dupont into anything significant.
“Antoine Dupont is an amazing athlete and amazing player,” the 34-year-old told reporters on Wednesday.
“He has proved in the last few years, when he’s been receiving awards, that he’s a key figurehead.
“But I have learnt in my time that if you make a game around a match-up, you tend not to focus on what you need to do. This game is not about me against him, it is about me doing my role for the team.”
Smith conceded that New Zealand, like all teams, would have special plans to defuse the threat of the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year’s fearless running.
According to statistics published in the Times, since the 2019 World Cup Dupont has had 9.5 carries and made an average of 44 metres per 80 minutes.
His ability to pick up the ball and accelerate through gaps means Smith and the All Blacks defence will need to be on their game if they are to keep intact their 100% record in World Cup pool matches.
Smith, while not lacking pace and an eye for a gap, is more about game management with his pinpoint ball distribution helping make New Zealand the great attacking side they are.
He also plays a key role in covering the gaps around rucks and mauls and using his experience to organise the New Zealand forwards in defence.
Dupont knows that in the All Blacks, France will be facing not only Smith and 22 other New Zealanders but a system that has consistently produced the best rugby sides in the world.
“They’re the most beautiful team to watch, a team that generations and generations have dreamed of,” he told reporters on Wednesday.