Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Confidence Cruden's key

The five-eighths knows his game and trusts his work and what he has learned from his experiences since his awkward start.

Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty
Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty

Body language is big business in any sport, especially for a playmaker like Aaron Cruden, as the All Blacks start their annual test programme.

These days he carries that confidence with aplomb. He knows his game much more, he trusts his work and the experiences he has been through since his awkward start three years ago. That translates into a certainty about his ability and his place in the topline of international five-eighths.

Across town, his French rival Camille Lopez will be stewing about his debut tonight at Eden Park, just as Cruden did when he began a test for his first time in Sydney. It was a tough night for the 21-year-old in what had been an extraordinary ascension after his health troubles.

Three years on, Cruden's game is purring. He is a small yet commanding presence with all the self-assurance and weapons to guide the All Blacks around the track.

The five-eighths has been in rare touch this season, outshining an array of illustrious rivals in most spheres of the game as he has led the Chiefs through the Super 15 series.

A simple accolade that he is pushing Daniel Carter hard says it all.

When Carter cracked a bone in his hand, a decision about his replacement for this duel with France was quick and fertile. Cruden would start his 21st international.

For his entire test career, Cruden has been one of the backup posse to Carter. This year he is THE deputy and creating some real heat on the nation's greatest five-eighths.

Cruden hopes he is pushing Carter. He is ambitious and wants to earn the No 10 jersey by right or circumstance. He's read and heard the stories.

"I always want to start in every team," he said. "If I don't, then I have to make sure those who do are ready.

"You also have to be prepped because if someone gets hurt, you have to step up.

"I have never been one to be fond of the backup tag but I just bide my time and try and put in quality performances and that's all I can do."

This season there has been no sign from Cruden of the nerves which can invade five-eighths, none of the anxiety and pressure points like the angst which invaded Quade Cooper's limbs at the 2011 World Cup semifinal.

Advances in Cruden's game have been marked while he has shed much of the strapping which accompanied him in the early stages of the year.

His running game, dexterity and desire to take on the line remain while his greatest improvement may be in game management and his kicking.

He has added considerable length to his tactical kicks while his goalkicking has been a powerful weapon.

The 24-year-old has always played with his radar on widescreen and has added extra prudence about his judgments on when to attack, run, kick or call moves.

His interaction with Ma'a Nonu is the unknown. At times Nonu has smothered some less experienced teammates but his mixed work this year and Cruden's growing seniority should have that sorted.

The five-eighths will link with his old Manawatu halfback buddy Aaron Smith and that historical association should boost both men. They are Lilliputians in the world of rugby giants and France will want to test their defensive clout.

Cruden expects that. It has never been any different for him.

"That is something I have lived with for my whole life," he said.

"I am not the biggest bloke as you can see but you can make up for it. You have lots of enthusiasm, get off the line quickly and drop the ball carrier fast.

"I know I am not going to be the guy putting in the big shots, I will not be physically dominating guys. But physically dominating guys in my position looks like going low, chop tackles, getting guys to ground quickly so that our loosies can get on the ball."

At the Chiefs, coach and mentor Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Andrew Strawbridge all see different aspects of the game. They each deliver those perspectives to Cruden for his analysis.

"It seems to work," he said. "You'd think there would be a few arguments and a few disagreements but we just take the best out of everything."

They all bring their own mantras to Cruden. Defensive coach Smith will talk to him about how a player's character shines out on defence and turning that resilience into gold.

They work on technique and footwork so tackles are effective. It takes its toll but victories are a great balm for that pain.

Heading into his fourth season as an All Black, Cruden's work tonight will be one of the keener inspection points. He accepts that as standard for any five-eighths. "I feel confident, I understand my roles, now we need to get excited," he said.

"We all know how to play rugby, you just have to make sure it doesn't get on top of you or burn you."

- NZ Herald

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