Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Super Rugby: Fruean puts his former team under the pump

Back from surgery, Robbie Fruean scored against his former team last week. Photo / Getty Images
Back from surgery, Robbie Fruean scored against his former team last week. Photo / Getty Images

Barely half an hour into Super Rugby 2014 and the Chiefs managed to establish themselves as potential champions with a single play.

They were struggling for possession, territory and cohesion, and then wham, they worked Robbie Fruean free on the left and the giant centre smashed his way through three tackles to score in the corner.

It was vintage Fruean - his power, pace, balance and agility all working in one explosive, 110kg package of unstoppable momentum.

The pain that try inflicted on the Crusaders was considerably more than the sting from the injustice of conceding five points against the run of play.

Fruean, at the end of 2009, was lured to Christchurch from Wellington, having been identified as the long-term successor to the hugely under-rated Casey Laulala. Fruean was seen as a player in a similar mould - big, direct and intimidating; a centre who could drive his team over the gainline and be used as both a target man and much more if required.

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There was an element of uncertainty about Fruean's ability to fulfil his potential given the seriousness of the heart surgery he'd endured in the wake of rheumatic fever, but the Crusaders were confident the risk would be worth the reward.

What they underestimated once they signed Fruean, was his general lack of conditioning. He was only 21 and, due to ill health, hadn't played or trained much since leaving Porirua College.

He hadn't been exposed to the rigorous and quasi-professional systems of the traditional rugby schools and he was a long way behind when he arrived for his first pre-season.

The Crusaders were committed to their man, though, supporting him, nurturing him and investing all they could to get Fruean into the necessary condition to star.

It was a long battle - he was quiet for most of the 2010 season, only coming alive in the ITM Cup when he was partnered with Sonny Bill Williams.

In the early part of 2011, he was sensational in bursts, attracting the attention of the All Black selectors. But when they followed him closely, they felt his work-rate was low - he didn't track back on defence or jump to his feet after making a tackle and while there were a few memorably explosive and impressive ball carries, he wasn't showing enough appetite to get his hands on the ball.

The question was whether Fruean was being hampered by his heart condition or whether he had formed bad habits.

The question was possibly answered when his form declined through 2012 and further in 2013, before an announcement was made in June that he wouldn't be returning for the remainder of the campaign as he required further surgery.

This is when the story grew different strands and perspectives. The Crusaders weren't sure Fruean would be ready to play by the start of 2014, so they offered only a wider training contract.

The Chiefs were prepared to stump up a full contract and Fruean, despite the support and patience of the Crusaders, opted for Hamilton. Inevitably, given the background, there have been suggestions of bad blood between the Crusaders and Fruean. Both parties may feel they were let down by the other.

It's an engaging sub-plot, running parallel with the real story here, which is that the Chiefs are likely to be rewarded for being bolder than the Crusaders. The Chiefs backed themselves to get Fruean right and fix the obvious flaws in his game.

They were brave where the Crusaders were reticent and how satisfying must it have been for coaching group and player when Fruean was deemed ready to play the opening game of the season? How satisfying must it have been when his first real act in a Chiefs jersey was to destroy the Crusaders' defence in a devastating run?

And above all else, how satisfying would it have been that Fruean lasted 80 minutes and picked up the Chiefs internal award for the player deemed to have worked hardest off the ball for his team-mates?

"He was terrific," says Chiefs assistant coach Tom Coventry about Fruean's opening performance. "He's in really good condition, he made good line breaks, he worked hard off the ball, made good tackles and that is something he hasn't been able to do in the past because of his heart condition.

"I have been impressed at how hard he has pushed himself."

One swallow does not a summer make and all that, but Fruean may be about to become the player the Crusaders always wanted him to be. But, of course, he's going to be that player for the Chiefs.

The rugby public can interpret that scenario as they like, but it must surely be further evidence that the Chiefs are the country's golden franchise.


Fruean's debut

Chiefs vs Crusaders, Feb 21

Played: 80 minutes*
Carries: 3
Metres Made: 52
Average Metres per Carry: 17.3
Defenders Beaten: 3
Clean Breaks: 1
Tackles Made: 5

*Sourced from Herald Rugby Stats Centre

- Herald on Sunday

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