As he prepares for an already emotional farewell to Dunedin, halfback Aaron Smith will have further reason to miss the voice on the end of the phone before his final home appearance for the Highlanders.
After this year’s Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks veteran will move his career offshore to Japanese club Toyota, ending a Super Rugby career that has seen him log 183 games for the southern franchise – second only to former Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett.
Their must-win encounter with Queensland Reds on Friday will see Smith, 34, run onto the Forsyth Barr Stadium pitch for the last time in Highlanders colours, an occasion made all the more poignant by the absence of father Wayne, who died after a long illness in April.
“It was definitely a game dad planned to come to,” said Smith. “He was very crook most of the end of last year and came right.
“He hadn’t come to any games earlier this year, because he was trying to get healthy enough to come to this game. He was planning on coming down for these two weeks and hanging out with the grandkids.
“It sucks, to be honest.”
Smith reveals the pre-game ritual between father and son that no longer takes place.
“I’d always ring him on the way to the game, on the car ride in, and he’d give me the goofy laugh and awkward jokes,” he reflected. “He’d always tell me, ‘You’ve got this, son’.
“The last month has been interesting, playing rugby without that stuff. I’ll be thinking of my dad on Friday night, for sure, and just trying to do him proud.
“He’s here. He’s with me always… he used to love coming to watch games here.”
Smith is conscious of not letting his emotions override his team’s focus on the task at hand. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, they are scrapping for the competition’s last playoff spot and desperately need victory over the Reds, coached by former Highlanders lock Brad Thorn.
“I’ve played in a few milestone games and keeping it as normal as possible is always key,” he said. “I’ve still got to make the team first, so I’ll be waiting for that news.
“It’s sad, but it’s exciting as well, with the opportunity we have, as a team. I owe this place a lot, I owe Dunedin a lot, I owe the Highlanders a lot.
“I’ve had a lot of special moments on this field and I’d like nothing more than to win this weekend.”
Join Newshub at 7pm Friday for live updates of the Highlanders v Reds Super Rugby Pacific clash