Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Cruden still to make his mark

Five-eighths needs to develop a better link with inside backs.

Aaron Cruden is tackled by Springbok Jannie Du Plessis during the match in Dunedin.  Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden is tackled by Springbok Jannie Du Plessis during the match in Dunedin. Photo / Getty Images

Aaron Cruden was a massive part of the Chiefs' triumphant campaign but the five-eighths is struggling to make the same All Black imprint.

When he stepped out for his 14th test against the Springboks he was not well acquainted with the nuances of his halfback Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu.

He had played alongside both before, notably at the tail end of the World Cup, but not on the regular basis which brought such power to his link with Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Sonny Bill Williams at the Chiefs.

There was some improvement when Aaron Smith came from the bench for the second spell and his speed created more time for the backline.

But there still looked to be an uncertain edge about Cruden's direction and pattern.

There could be many reasons. He may have been playing to a certain plan which did not unfold, or they could not execute, but there was an awkward look about the inside backs' interaction. They had time together at the Hurricanes but in the past two tests there has not been the flow or game construction the All Blacks have been searching for.

Daniel Carter's absence changes the dynamics because he reads a game so well and brings a variety of attack which has yet to seep into Cruden's international portfolio.

Kicking can be as damaging as some intricate backline move and Carter has often produced that pressure with his variety and kicking accuracy.

That is not a go-to scheme for Cruden, who seems far more inclined to run or use his outsides as his initial thoughts.

Meanwhile even younger five-eighths Beauden Barrett watches. His game has a bigger kicking component than Cruden's and may be closer to Carter's.

But the selectors, as they have done with the halfbacks, like to have players with different skills in the same position so Barrett may have to wait.

Carter's fitness was about the only immediate or apparent concern for coach Steve Hansen as he surveyed the fallout from the side's 21-11 victory against the Springboks in Dunedin.

Next up are Argentina in a fortnight at La Plata.

Most of the All Blacks were carrying some damage from their ferocious duel with the Springboks but none are on the doubtful-to-travel list.

Carter is recovering from his calf muscle injury and Hansen believes he will be fit to travel when the team flies out on Saturday.

Hansen said the All Blacks had ground their way back into the test after struggling in the opening quarter against a desperate opponent.

"Test matches like that sometimes really test your character and I was really pleased with the character of our older statesmen plus the younger players."

- NZ Herald

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