Rugby: Cruden makes magical return

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Aaron Cruden makes a break during the pre-season game between the Blues and the Chiefs at Pukekohe Stadium. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden makes a break during the pre-season game between the Blues and the Chiefs at Pukekohe Stadium. Photo / Getty Images

There was a moment on Saturday night in all the heat and noise and the nor'west wind at AMI Stadium when Aaron Cruden vanished, only to materialise seconds later so far from where he was last spotted you could only rub your eyes and wonder how he did it.

There is a subtlety to Cruden's game that is made possible only by a supreme confidence in his one-on-one ability. He starts games in much the same way as a prize-fighter - he works his way into the contest through process and orthodoxy; he jabs, feints, defends retreats. He is conscious of landing a few early punches but is thinking rounds ahead, noting deficiencies and patterns.

He began this way against the Crusadersin his first game since his knee disintegrated on the same ground last April. He stood in the pocket, made a couple of darts at the line and cleared the ball when required. He took the first pass early and often, a safe pair of hands for Tawera Kerr-Barlow, a calm head in the early storm.

In the first 10 minutes, he did the things we all expect a first five to do. He waited for the ball and showed glimpses of his undeniable brilliance. And then he did what Aaron Cruden does best: evaporated. One minute he was at first receiver, the next in midfield, then he trailed back behind the attack line and, all of a sudden, was back where he began four phases later.

From those early touches, he had gleaned all the intelligence he needed to remote control the game. Even when he had no direct involvement, he was still pulling the strings. His teammates filled whichever space he had just vacated, and made room for him whenever and wherever he reappeared. When the Chiefs attacked, watching Cruden in the line was akin to playing a game of human whack-a-mole.

There is a science at play here; a mastery of illusion and sleight of hand. At 80kg dripping wet, Cruden is not the kind of player who will knock over defenders. Instead, he bounces out and lets his wings hit first-phase ball from the lineout, or Charlie Ngatai bend the line inside. He takes the pass at odd angles and holds defenders. He hides behind screens and re-emerges on an outside mismatch. You half expect him to yell, 'surprise!' as he glides through a gap.

And even while all this is happening, even while he was happy to roam the backline and job-share with his blindside wings and second five and the impressive Damian McKenzie - as precocious a player as this country has ever produced - he still managed to piece together more touches than all but one other No10 in the opening round of Super Rugby. It was a masterclass of deception and decision-making.

He announced his return to Super Rugby by sprinkling his own brand of magic dust around AMI Stadium. NZME

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