Rugby: Cruden pivotal in Chiefs' title bid

By Kris Shannon

Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs. Photo / Anthony Au-Yeung
Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs. Photo / Anthony Au-Yeung

In the strict hierarchy of rugby in this country, it's rare to find a Super rugby side benefiting from the All Blacks rather than the reverse.

But the Chiefs were real winners from the recent international window, with their star man allowed to find form in the black jersey before returning for his franchise's home stretch, beginning tonight at the Highlanders.

Aaron Cruden shapes as pivotal in the defending champions' desperate charge from eighth place to the playoffs. It's far from an unusual position for the first five but, over the course of the next month, his importance will be exemplified.

The Chiefs have three matches to win if they wish to extend their search for a third straight title and Cruden's role in that quest will be crucial, tasked with reviving an attack that this season has become predictable and lacking in a finishing touch.

And if Cruden is to succeed in that task and lead the Chiefs to the post-season, both player and team will owe a debt of gratitude to the All Black coaches.

Before the June break, Cruden was struggling to regain his touch after a long layoff with a broken thumb. He was then scratchy in the opening test against England, improved in the second and, critically for the Chiefs, retained for the third despite a strong case for Beauden Barrett to assume the No10 jersey.

Instead, Cruden produced a scintillating first-half display at Waikato Stadium, looking like his old self and providing encouragement to a coach who will now be leaning on his protege even more than usual.

"He's ready to go, he's keen to play and I thought he was outstanding [in the third test]," said Dave Rennie. "I think [the All Black series] was good for him.

"He's the type of guy, the more he plays, the better he gets. If you look from our point of view, up to getting injured he'd started every game. He tends to thrive on that."

Having led the competition in scoring last season, the Chiefs sit ninth in that category after 13 games. The Chiefs accrued only six wins before the break and the team's woes were attributed to the attack when the coaches conducted a review this month.

Tanerau Latimer felt his side had become too predictable and he hoped Cruden's presence would help to reverse that trend. "I think he's got a new lease of life and it'll be good for us, " Latimer said.

Assistant coach Andrew Strawbridge agreed, feeling Cruden had found a good head space while on international duty. The player admitted to truly trusting his natural instincts only in the third test, and Strawbridge said that was to be expected from such a highly skilled position.

"It's really hard to hit the ground running again," Strawbridge said.

"But it was really exciting to watch him with the sort of confidence and speed and positive mindset that we know he generally has."

- NZ Herald

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