Rugby: Cruden looking to get defence mix just right

By Kris Shannon

Skipper says Chiefs can take lessons from last loss to Brumbies

The presence of in-form Aaron Cruden has been linked to the Chiefs' late-season surge. Photo / Getty Images
The presence of in-form Aaron Cruden has been linked to the Chiefs' late-season surge. Photo / Getty Images

Of the eight new names to be announced among the Chiefs ranks in Canberra tonight, one will reverberate around GIO Stadium a little louder than most.

The defending champions have changed more than half their team since being demolished by the Brumbies on Anzac Day, with a combination of injury, form and the coaches' capriciousness leaving the visitors with a completely new-look side.

But the name that will be read out alongside the No 10 will cause the most concern for the home side's fans and players alike. After all, there is no doubting that Aaron Cruden is one of the most important players in the finals; a man with whom his side's fortunes will rise or fall.

Though it would be reductive to attribute the Chiefs' late-season surge solely to Cruden, the form of the first five-eight was the driving force behind the champs' desperate dash to the playoffs. If there was any lingering doubt the Chiefs are a different prospect with Cruden in their ranks, that fact was demonstrated in definitive style earlier this season.

With their talisman in the starting lineup, the Chiefs won five games and lost three. When he was consigned to the casualty ward with a broken thumb, their record dropped to three victories and three defeats.

With Cruden, the champs' attack is all moving parts, making the most of his ability to take the ball to the line and either find a hole or pop a late pass to a surging teammate. Without him, the ball can be shifted around without really going anywhere, as the rest of the backs struggle for imagination and penetration.

No one questioned the wisdom at the time, but this inconsistent campaign illustrated just why Cruden had previously played almost every minute of Dave Rennie's reign in Hamilton.

The pivot rewarded the faith of his long-time coach with two titles, of course, the second of which saw Cruden lead his team past tonight's opponents. And the Brumbies are sure to have vivid memories of Cruden's impact, despite him failing to feature when the teams met three months ago.

While their problems were largely on defence that night, the Chiefs also lacked the clinical edge that Cruden provides with ball in hand. It saw a struggling attack, a pattern that continued in his absence, but one Cruden felt little pressure in reviving.

"Not too bad, actually," he replied when asked about the weight of his burden. "The boys were working hard and adjusting a few little things in the way we play our game so, for me, it was just getting my head around that, coming back from the All Blacks environment. And I think it's worked reasonably well."

Aside from a hiccup against the Highlanders, he would be right. Cruden's time with the All Blacks was crucial to the Chiefs' chances, allowing him to find form at international level before returning to be the face of his franchise's hopes for a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles. "It was nice going into the All Blacks environment and freshening up a little bit, then coming back into the Chiefs where the boys were working so hard.

"It's been really good and I'm happy with my form over the last wee while. Hopefully it can continue in these next few games."

If it does, his team's progression would represent a remarkable turnaround from that ugly effort on Anzac Day. Being joined in tonight's lineup by seven fellow fresh faces, Cruden knows his side can now reap the benefits of what appeared a hugely detrimental result.

"We can take a lot of motivating factors out of that performance - it wasn't one of our best," he said.

"Defence has been a bit of a hallmark for us and I think we've shown improvements over the last few weeks.

"As long as we continue to do that, hopefully we can nullify a lot of the threats they pose in terms of their attack and get a few points on the board ourselves."

That final target, producing the type of attack that left the Chiefs last season's leading scorers, will fall squarely with Cruden. But he stressed the role of defensive attitude in the proficiency of the attack and, like Goldilocks looking for the perfect bowl of porridge, Cruden is hoping that attitude will be apparent tonight.

"If our attitude's right then, generally, things will fall into place. Defence is based a lot around attitude and that's how you know if this Chiefs team is firing - if the defence is right, the attitude's right and the body language is there, then that flows into our attack.

"We'll be working hard to make sure that's at its peak this weekend. Not too high or low - just at that right level."

- NZ Herald

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