Can he kick it?
October 10, 2011
New Zealand's Colin Slade passes on the playmaker role to Aaron Cruden during Sunday's victory over Argentina © Getty Images
A little over a week ago Aaron Cruden was probably picking through the pieces of Manawatu's ITM Cup championship campaign and enjoying the Rugby World Cup from the comfort of an armchair with a colour-coded bucket on his head.
Considered surplus to requirements by All Blacks head coach Graham Henry when he announced his squad back in July, the 22-year-old was reduced to promotional appearances on breakfast TV with presenters who struggled to place him and had absolutely no idea what an important figure he would become for the national side just a few days later.
Cut to New Zealand's quarter-final clash with Argentina at Eden Park on Sunday night. All eyes are fixed on a tense and traumatic battle for a place in the semi-finals when a nation only just recovering from the seismic setback that was the injury to first-choice playmaker Dan Carter are dealt another hammer blow as Colin Slade hits the deck.
Slade, looking to make the most of a rare and high-profile opportunity to step out of the sizeable shadow cast by Carter, had fallen victim to a groin injury - the same fate that befell his predecessor. He bravely attempted to play on but with just over half an hour on the clock Cruden was summoned from the bench and handed the All Blacks' reins. Welcome to the World Cup.
Called up into the squad in the wake of Carter's injury the previous weekend, Cruden will have been pinching himself as he warmed up in front of 58,000 expectant Kiwis. With Slade the designated go-to man in the absence of Carter, he may have hoped of the odd bit of game time and the chance to add to his six Test caps. Shouldering the hopes of a nation would not have been part of the bargain.
Heading into the Pumas clash he had not featured for the All Blacks since the narrow victory against Australia in Sydney over a year ago. That was his first start in the much-prized No.10 jersey, his contribution only lasting an hour before he was replaced by Slade, but it was a clear step forward on the career path of a player who had until then featured five times off the bench and twice as a fill-in centre.
He missed out on the All Blacks' end of year tour, with Stephen Donald the preferred deputy for Carter, and injury would limit his Super Rugby season and therefore his Tri-Nations and World Cup claims. Having spent such a long time out of the All Blacks picture, the prospect of getting up to speed with their game plan and patterns of play in the space of a week will have no doubt been a daunting prospect but as a testicular cancer survivor Cruden is no stranger to tackling and meeting life's problems.
And far from hinder his progress, that time away from the spotlight may well serve him and the All Blacks well in the next two weeks. He will not have been subjected to the intense pressure endured by his team-mates throughout the build-up to the World Cup and the tournament itself. Free from that scrutiny his creative tendencies may flourish and while his 47-minute cameo, punctuated by a crunching tackle from Pumas captain Felipe Contepomi, may not have been spectacular there was enough evidence to suggest that he will be able to transfer his impressive game-breaking form for Manawatu onto the sport's biggest stage.
On assuming arguably the most high-pressured role in world rugby, Cruden was not fazed. "When I went out I was pretty nervous but I just knew I had a job to do and my role and that was what I was focused on doing," he said.
Asked his opinion on the performance of the fourth player to take on the fly-half's duties during this current campaign - with scrum-half Piri Weepu the missing name having finished the game against Canada in the role - Henry raised half a smile before delivering limited praise. "He enjoyed the occasion and played very well for a guy who hasn't played for a while," said the All Blacks boss who will no doubt sleep easier knowing that a major catastrophe has been averted.
Slade's tournament was cruelly ended by the injury and prompted a recall for Stephen Donald who will now provide cover for Cruden. The 27-year-old Donald, who is Bath-bound having committed his future overseas as result of his original All Blacks snub, is a veteran by comparison with 22 Test caps to his name and will be an assured presence if required at the business end of the tournament - starting with the semi-final showdown with Australia on Sunday.
The influence of Weepu, clearly now the first-choice scrum-half, should also not be underestimated. His kicking prowess should take some of the heat off his fly-half with seven penalties against the Pumas testament to that fact although Cruden's late conversion was superb.
But it is Weepu's game management and ability to dictate proceedings that make him more valuable now than at any other time in his 54 Test career. Able to successfully probe even the most resolute of defences with a cultured boot and with the vision to spark a talent-heavy back division into life, he sets the tone from the moment he leads the ever-impressive haka. But as competent they may be, All Blacks fans should not get too comfortable as there is still plenty of time for fate to intervene once again.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.