Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Cruden needs to deliver to hold off Barrett challenge

Pressure is the constant the All Blacks must live with. That pressure will be especially intense today, as it always is when they are trying to make amends for a poor performance.

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The tight five will be feeling it after they didn't get close to dominating the Wallabies the way they wanted. The loose trio will feel it - they barely carried the ball all game. The midfield, albeit a new one, will know the decision-making has to be better and the back three need to be more involved - sharper and more alert.

But arguably no one will be feeling more pressure than Aaron Cruden. The bloke wearing No 10 is always going to be carrying more expectation than everyone else.

So much rests on his shoulders: he is the director, the man who, if the forwards do their bit, will be responsible for managing the flow and rhythm of the team.

It will be, largely but not exclusively, Cruden's responsibility to put the team in the right places: to strike the right balance between territory and adventure and to bring out all the skills within the team.

As Cory Jane said during the week, when the All Blacks don't back themselves to use all they have, they end up looking like an average team. When they believe in their plan, their ability and are brave enough to attack phase after phase, then they are just about untouchable.

No one played well in Sydney. "Our game structures and skill-sets were virtually non-existent," said All Black coach Steve Hansen. All 23 have to be held accountable but perhaps Cruden's performance will have fallen under greater scrutiny than his teammates.

He hasn't been quite on his game this year. He hasn't played badly - it's just he hasn't played as well as he did throughout last year.

He's been tentative at times when the All Blacks really needed him to be bold. He's been jittery when the All Blacks have really needed him to be smooth.

When the rain began to get heavy in Sydney, it instantly became a night for the tight five and Cruden to take control of the game. It was a night for decisive and clear thinking, for the No 10 to take ownership of the game.

The longer it went on, the more apparent it became that the All Blacks still miss Daniel Carter. It's hard to believe he would have been as reactive as Cruden.

But Cruden's not under pressure because of the ghost of Carter. He's under pressure because of the real presence of Beauden Barrett.

A daft yellow card prevented Barrett from staking any kind of claim in Sydney.

He was, arguably, the most consistent and most potent first-five throughout Super Rugby. He played just as well in June for the All Blacks and would, most probably, have started the third test against England had Conrad Smith not broken his thumb and left the selectors wary of making more changes to the backline.

It is anomalous that Barrett, having delivered so much in his test career, has not yet worn the All Black No 10 jersey. He has done all that he can to say he is ready.

Cruden has done just enough to hold off the challenge.

He'll need to deliver something convincing tonight to keep it that way.

- NZ Herald

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