Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Cruden may be casualty when Carter makes his return

Aaron Cruden.
Aaron Cruden.

As Aaron Cruden prepared this week to start his third test in a row, this time on his home pitch at Waikato Stadium, a familiar thought might have struck - how he fits into the All Black puzzle behind Dan Carter.

Carter's return is gathering momentum. This afternoon he is scheduled to again represent his Southbridge club, and, if his Achilles permits, he will be Steve Hansen's starting first five-eighths for the first Rugby Championship test against Australia in Sydney on August 16.

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If so, Cruden might be lucky to make the match-day squad, and that's not a criticism of his form or ability, but purely about what his other rival for the No10 jersey, Beauden Barrett, provides.

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Barrett, who might have started at first-five had centre Conrad Smith not broken his thumb in Dunedin, could be a victim of his utility and impact value - he has yet to start at No 10 for the All Blacks - but that's what will probably keep him in the frame when Carter returns.

He not only provides cover for fullback, he has an uncanny ability to make things happen as a replacement. As Hansen admitted this week, Barrett's surprising power and pace are a torment for tiring defenders.

"He's been a fantastic player off the bench for us," Hansen said of the Hurricanes player. "If you think about all the tests where he's come on, he's made a difference.

"I'm not sure that Crudes is that type of player, either. I think he's more of a starting five-eighths. So it just fits the team."

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Cruden hasn't been at his best in this England series. The rhythm hasn't quite been there after his long lay-off with a thumb injury, but he showed enough under the roof in Dunedin to prove he deserves to continue being the first-choice first-five in Carter's absence.

It was his pace and pass which put Julian Savea away down the left for Ben Smith's try to enable the All Blacks to take the lead after what was a challenging first half for the home side.

There was some untidy stuff, but England also deserve credit for making Cruden's return a tough one in Auckland and Dunedin.

They have pressured him and the All Blacks' midfield with their line speed and accuracy on defence.

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After a difficult start to his international career, Cruden, who has played 31 tests and led the Chiefs to two Super Rugby titles, has the experience to put that aside and grab any fleeting opportunity with both hands.

Once tonight's test is over, though, it could be Barrett who has more of a chance as the All Blacks set their sights on continuing their unbeaten run in the Rugby Championship.

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"I don't think anyone would be too upset about getting picked for the All Blacks every time there's a test team named," Hansen said of the 23-year-old this week.

"He's happy and comfortable in that position. And the game involves 23 people - we don't see it as 15-a-side. The 23 have got to come on and make a difference. To have people of his calibre to come on is fantastic for us."

- NZ Herald

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