Quick-tapping in the face of pressure
Tom Hamilton in Hamilton
June 20, 2014
© Getty Images
Pressure can do weird things to players; some wilt, some thrive. In the closing stages of the first Test against England, All Black Aaron Cruden quick-tapped in the face of it.
It was a decision that swung the balance of the series in the All Blacks' favour. It was a point of difference from the Kiwi's current first-choice fly-half that saw the playbook thrown out of the window and it came down to raw impulse, but a call based on the balance of probability and eventually one that saw New Zealand gain field position and win the first Test.
"It's just one of those opportunities you see and I backed the call I got from the outside and my instincts and we were off," Cruden told ESPN. "In the heat of the moment you don't have time to worry. I was pretty happy a couple of minutes later that we got the try as those decisions can have a big bearing on the result of the match."
Over the past three games England have played here, there have been three such moments of individual brilliance. There was Ben Foden's tight-rope effort against the Crusaders, Cruden's quick-tap and anything involving Ben Smith in the second Test.
Those moments stay with you for a while, but the last two Tests have seen the All Blacks hammer home yet another paragraph in their ever-growing rugby legacy. The series is now done and dusted heading into Saturday's third Test in Hamilton. Cruden will have started all three and while England are licking their wounds preparing to attempt to save face at the weekend, the Kiwis are eyeing up a blackwash.
"It'd be massive, it's a goal we had leading into the series and it'd be huge," Cruden said of a potential 3-0 clean sweep. "It's been talked about throughout the series but we respect the English and how they play the game, but for us to get a 3-0 win, that's really exciting.
"The goal is to continue to improve each and every game. There've been glimpses of the type of rugby we want to play but there hasn't been a complete performance yet. For us it's the consistency, going out there and putting in a quality 80 minute performance which we know we have to reach if we are to beat the English, they've been right there in every game we've played. It's the challenge of consistency and putting in a performance of 80 minutes."
The third Test will be played on a ground Cruden knows well. He's just extended his stay at the Chiefs until 2017 - "the All Blacks jersey has a massive pulling effect" was his assessment of the motivation to stay in New Zealand rugby - and having played a key role in their back-to-back Super Rugby titles, Cruden knows what it takes to win at the Waikato Stadium.
For the English fly-halves, they will have to adjust quickly to an unfamiliar surrounding. The noise of the cowbells the Waikato faithful ring in the stands, in tribute to their old mascot Mooloo, is likely to be a new experience for Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani, but Cruden is wary of the threat they pose.
"I've seen a little bit of Danny Cipriani when he had a stint in Super Rugby. He's very unpredictable and you have to have your wits about you to nullify the tricks he might pull out.
"I saw him against the Crusaders and he played really well. And then Freddie performed really well in the first Test. I was talking to him after the game in Dunedin and he told me he hadn't had the best season of club form back home but was stoked to get the opportunity on this trip and played well in the first Test. We have to make sure we limit the opportunities they get in the fly-half channels."
Two match-winners - Ben Smith and Aaron Cruden © Getty Images
There were doubts about Burns' form in the run-up to the first Test, but like Cruden, who was coming back from injury, he rubbished such worries with an assured performance that belied the hard season he experienced at Gloucester. Burns will now hope to play a key role in England's charge to the World Cup next year as they attempt to build on the legacy of the 2003 victors.
Not much has happened in English rugby since then but for the All Blacks, Test-on-Test success is expected. With 31 caps, Cruden knows exactly what is expected of a New Zealand team on their home turf and he is embracing being part of the All Blacks' legacy.
"You use it as motivation, as fuel. The All Blacks jersey is renowned worldwide and all Kiwis aspire to wear it at some point. We're the lucky ones who pull it on each weekend. We understand the legacy and history but we want to build on our own legacy and continue to improve each day."
Alongside his Super Rugby medals, the World Cup gong and other personal accolades, Cruden now has a chance to help the All Blacks to yet another milestone at the weekend, their 17th straight victory, something only two Tier one nations have achieved in the history of the game. If the scoreboard is tight heading into the final minutes of the match, do not expect Cruden to wilt under the pressure. Instead, expect a quick-tap or a moment of magic.
"Being in this environment, there's always pressure but you have to walk towards it and accept, you can't hide away from it," Cruden said. "It's no different to any other international sport.
"As a player you get excited by the challenge and you use it as motivation. It's those who handle the excitement levels and pressure the best that come out on top. We put a lot of work in too and we continue to try and grow that aspect of the game and hopefully that continues this weekend."
Aaron Cruden was speaking on behalf of AIG, the official insurance partner of New Zealand Rugby. Join the conversation @AIGRugby
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.