Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks back up plans to make most of his time in starting role

So far Aaron Cruden has relied on injury to win his starting All Black jersey ahead of Daniel Carter.

His challenge this year is to beat the great man on form and slip free from the noose of the dreaded 'back-up' tag.

Cruden versus Carter hasn't really been a battle to date; it's hardly a rivalry to match Grant Fox and Frano Botica or Carlos Spencer and Andrew Mehrtens. Genuine drama has been missing since Cruden won his first cap in 2010 - he's assumed his position on the bench and waited to play his cameo role.

Even when he starts, which he did for the ninth time last night for a mixed result, Cruden is embedded in the public conscious as a stand-in. When Carter is fit, Carter plays: that notion still goes unchallenged in selection meetings.

It's not an easy task for Cruden - usurping one of the greats, possibly even the best No10 of them all. Nevertheless, that's the task with which he's been charged as concerns grow about Carter's fragility.

Carter has been increasingly prone to injury since late 2011 when he ripped his groin before the final pool game of the World Cup.

He has barely played 50 per cent of the All Blacks' last 19 tests and while the All Black coaches know he has the desire and drive to make it to 2015, they are not as sure that he will as they once were.

No one wants a repeat of the dramas of 2011 when the nation almost stopped breathing on the day Carter was ruled out so the plan is to build Cruden into a world-class force over the next two seasons. How different would the mind-set be within the All Blacks if they reached 2015 with Carter fully fit but Cruden installed as the No1 first-five? Losing the dependency on Carter, not being gripped by the dramas that come every time he tweaks a calf or bruises a toe, would provide the All Blacks with an enormous level of comfort.

All of this is why the selectors don't want Cruden to consider himself an insurance policy - he's not there as a 'just in case'. At 24 and with 21 test caps behind him, now is his time to prove he can make No 10 a genuinely competitive position. Now is his time to inject the need for debate around the selection table; to win a start when Carter is fully fit and raring to go.

"I am aware of that little fact as well," he says about the history of his starts to date which have only come as a consequence of Carter being injured. "But I guess it is not about looking at it like that and just making sure that when I get the chance I put in a quality performance. I can only control what I can do out there on the field and if I can do that to the best of my ability then hopefully I will be getting a start because the coaches think I am the best man for the job.

"I love hearing my name read out in the starting XV. I have never been one to be fond of the 'back-up' tag but at the end of the day you have just got to bide your time and put in quality performances."

He'll play next week in Christchurch, will probably pick up a start or two during the Rugby Championship where he is also likely to be introduced off the bench earlier than in the past as the coaches want to build that twin playmaking combination to give them alternative weaponry.

Whether he plays more is down to him. The benchmark for Cruden is the performance he gave last year in Cardiff where, for the first time, he controlled the game with his strategic management and kicking game. It was a performance that had many in the UK wondering if the All Blacks had both the best and second best No10s in world rugby.

That was the first sign of him truly coming of age; he played with the confidence of a man beginning to feel at home in the test arena. It was probably the first time in his test career that he felt embedded with the All Blacks; the first time he'd felt that level of comfort and certainty that he was good enough to be there.

"My first year in the All Blacks in 2010, I didn't take anything for granted but I suppose I did just think of myself as back-up to Dan Carter. When I did get a start later in the year against Australia, I didn't perform too well and missed the end of year tour. I didn't initially make the World Cup squad and I didn't feel too much pressure as a result because I was called in late. Getting a full season for the All Blacks last year, I think that progression over the years has really helped me mature as a person and as a player."

- Herald on Sunday

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