Conrad Smith’s withdrawal increases incumbent’s chances
The All Blacks coaches are pleased with the steady improvement of Aaron Cruden and he should earn an opportunity to continue that progress on Saturday night.
After returning from a thumb injury last month, Cruden has been short of the vintage form he showed last year, when he seemed set to mount a serious challenge to Dan Carter's stranglehold on the No 10 jersey.
But Cruden, who yesterday announced he had re-signed with New Zealand Rugby through the 2017 season, has been getting better by the game and looks likely to hold off Beauden Barrett to start the third test against England in Hamilton.
While Conrad Smith's withdrawal will leave Cruden, the backline's director, with adjustments to make, it also increases the chances of the incumbent retaining his position. Considering 22-year-old Malakai Fekitoa is the front-runner to start at centre, there will be a desire within the All Blacks camp to include as much experience as possible around the debutant.
That means Barrett may be left waiting for a maiden start at first five-eighth and Cruden could celebrate his new contract with another run in the jersey he holds so dear.
"My personality, I'd always be disappointed if I wasn't in the starting lineup," he said. "I think [Barrett] is playing outstanding rugby and the great thing about New Zealand is there's always great competition within squads, and I think that brings the best out of players.
"That's definitely the case for me - when guys are pushing hard it makes you want to push even harder, take your game to the next level and just continue to grow."
That growth has perhaps been unclear during this series, with Cruden showing similar levels of rust to most of his teammates. That pattern continued in Dunedin, when the Chiefs man gave his best performance during the All Blacks' best period.
"The first test, he was probably the same as most of our players - he struggled a bit," said assistant coach Ian Foster. "But we're really happy with the progress of Crudes from the first week to the second. I thought he showed a lot more continuity in his game, he made a very decisive break at the right time, and that's the Crudes that we know."
Foster revealed the coaches had engaged in plenty of discussion surrounding the battle between Cruden and Barrett, with both players set for a substantial spell on the Waikato Stadium pitch.
"They've both had pretty significant game time in this series. So whoever we do end up starting and whoever comes off the bench, they're both likely to play a significant role.
"Has Beauden put his hands up? Yes, he has. The message for him is he's just got to keep working on his game and keep getting sharper. But there's not a big shift that he has to make in order to get into a starting position. It's just going to be timing."
The timing may be ideal when a healthy Smith is present to support his Hurricanes teammates, rather than a week in which new combinations will be developed further along the backline.
Fekitoa is a markedly different player to Smith. But Cruden felt Fekitoa, if he is selected at centre, will have the requisite planning and preparation to ensure a successful start to life in international rugby.
"The early part of the week we always make sure everyone's getting a fair crack in their respective roles in the backline," he said. "So the guy stepping in, whoever it may be, I'm sure they'll be comfortable in the chances they get throughout the week.
"Malakai's a different type of player to Conrad so, if he's given that 13 jersey, you'll just have to work the combinations, do a lot of the little work that probably doesn't get noticed as much, and try to find sweet spots for each other."