On the night of Friday, October 20, 2023, I had the rare privilege of watching my first-ever Rugby World Cup match during the semi-final between Argentina and New Zealand at Stade de France in Saint-Denis. It was not the most entertaining of matches but, being my first time, it was an experience and memory I will always cherish as a sports journalist.
Having arrived early and taken my seat in the media tribune before both teams came out of their changing rooms, I decided to keep my eyes on the All Blacks’ most-capped back Aaron Smith during his warm-up. For my pleasure and to compare with what is done back home in Uganda. This was for about an hour until kickoff.
Smith was among the last New Zealand players to take to the playing surface. He began his warm-up with passing drills off the base targeting the post-pads. Then he did a few little grubber kicks and low box kicks with his substitute Finley Christie as his partner. All was done relaxed and easy for about ten minutes before jogging back to the changing room.
He returned to the pitch a little later for the team’s warm-up which began with running shuttles from the goal-line to the 22-metre line. Then a dynamic stretch for his lower body and legs before doing some more passing drills with non-playing half-back Cam Roigard as his partner.
The 34-year-old then juggled the ball casually as he prepared to do some kicking drills. First were up-and-under kicks out of hand and then box kicks. He then briefly joined the forwards for a short ball-handling session where he passed the ball from the base.
He hit a few exit box kicks from the 5-metre line to the right of the goalposts before hydrating for the first time in about forty minutes. I only saw Smith take water twice during the entire warm-up. Perhaps because it was a cold and wet night at Stade de France.
Smith then did a few press-ups before stretching again. He then exchanged high-fives with his fellow backs before they had a quick team talk in a hurdle. This was followed by more passing drills with Christie first. And then game simulation and set plays as a whole team, including those who were not on the team list for the night.
The team switched to defence where Smith hit the tackle bag held by Ethan Blackadder a couple of times. That was the last drill of the warm-up before Smith and the All Blacks retreated to the changing room, behind their captain Sam Cane in order of test rugby experience, for the final team before kickoff.
My observations from the nearly one-hour-long warm-up session? It did not require expert rugby knowledge to realise that there is nothing extraordinary that Smith, and the rest of the world-class players at this level for that matter, does in his warm-up. The routines and drills are the same.
However, the difference is the intensity with which he warmed up. From my seat at the highest and hindmost row in the media tribune, I noticed that Smith’s warm-up is significantly less relaxed than how he plays the match. Any chance that there is a room under the stands where teams go to warm up? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Aaron Smith played fifty-five minutes on the night and walked off with a try to his name as New Zealand swept Argentina by 44-06 points.
New Zealand will face the winner of the second semi-final between England and South Africa during the final next Saturday.