When Aaron Cruden crumpled to the Christchurch turf last April, it was much more than just his left knee that was wrecked.

The Chiefs' season? Headed for a first-round playoff exit after shuffling through a number of replacements for their fallen on-field leader.

Cruden's dream of an end-of-year trip to the United Kingdom? Shattered, leaving him watching on with the rest of the country as the All Blacks defended the World Cup.

As for the possibility of Cruden usurping Dan Carter and claiming the No10 jersey and guiding his country to a historic double? Forget about it.

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No, in one unremarkable instant nine months ago, what was intended to be the best year of Cruden's career came to a crashing halt.

But a bit of adversity is nothing new for the Manawatu man, who yesterday celebrated his 27th birthday by being named alongside Sam Cane as Chiefs co-captain for the Super Rugby season.

Cruden has thrived in much more trying circumstances than a mere knee reconstruction and, with the light at the end of the tunnel shining brighter than ever, nine months of frustration, disappointment and hurt are all but over.

In one unremarkable instant nine months ago, what was intended to be the best year of Cruden's career came to a crashing halt. Photo / Getty Images
In one unremarkable instant nine months ago, what was intended to be the best year of Cruden's career came to a crashing halt. Photo / Getty Images

The carrot Cruden has been chasing now has a date - February 12. That's when the Chiefs kick off their pre-season campaign.

"After such a long injury lay-off, it's nice to finally be able to see the finish line," Cruden says.

"Just to pull on a pair of rugby boots and a jersey again will be nice."

The former aspect of that wish has, in a way, already been accomplished, with Cruden training alongside his teammates since before Christmas.

He will on Monday have full contact sessions for the first time and, with one final visit to the surgeon scheduled for the end of the month, a clean bill of health is tantalisingly close.

Cruden's repaired knee is feeling strong, he has begun kicking from a tee and a forgettable 2015 is fading. Although, having emerged a better person and player from previous setbacks, including his battle with testicular cancer in 2008, the pivot is hardly about to banish every bad memory from last year, even if they are tinged with the sting of lost opportunity.

"When you pick up injuries, you're frustrated, you're disappointed, you go through a lot of emotions," he says.

Aaron Cruden's repaired knee is feeling strong, he has begun kicking from a tee and a forgettable year is fading. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Aaron Cruden's repaired knee is feeling strong, he has begun kicking from a tee and a forgettable year is fading. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"I still tried to contribute to the Chiefs' season as much as I could, in terms of being around the guys and helping bounce off some ideas if they needed any.

"With the World Cup, that was a little bit more difficult.

"Not saying I was going to be in the squad, but I thought I was a chance to be there, and then to have that taken away due to injury hurt.

"I sat back and watched with pride, as the whole nation did, but at the same time it was disappointing I couldn't be there and contribute to what was a great success.

"But, in saying that, injuries happen in sport and it's the way you bounce back and respond to those.

"Now it's 2016 and hopefully I'll have a massive year, first and foremost in the Chiefs jersey and, if my form warrants it, hopefully the All Blacks jersey."

There is one jersey, in particular, upon which Cruden has firmly fixed his gaze.

With Dan Carter having retired on top, there will be a new face regularly wearing No10 for the first time since 2004. Aaron Cruden joins the competition for the top job. Photo / Brett Phibbs
With Dan Carter having retired on top, there will be a new face regularly wearing No10 for the first time since 2004. Aaron Cruden joins the competition for the top job. Photo / Brett Phibbs

With Carter having retired on top, there will be a new face regularly wearing No10 for the first time since 2004.

The race for that role saw Cruden at various points establish himself as the front-runner before injury struck and, while unable to altogether prevent those famous digits from creeping into his mind during the endless recovery work, he is at least turning his attention to matters at hand rather than that ultimate target.

"I think it pops into my mind every now and then but, for me, the main motivation is just trying to get back on the field," he says.

"First and foremost, that's going to be in a Chiefs jersey, so I need to make sure that, if I want that All Blacks jersey later in the year, I perform well for the Chiefs."

Cruden's good friend and, now, fellow co-captain Cane smiled when asked to predict how his mate would perform. The two men live close to each other in Hamilton and the flanker, evidently, has been almost pestered by the stir-crazy first-five throughout his rehab.

"He's excited, eh," Cane says.

"He's champing at the bit and I'd expect what we always get out of Aaron - someone who directs us around the park, reads the game really well and is all about putting other guys in space and manipulating the defence.

"It'll definitely be great to have him back."

Cruden, though, was more circumspect in predicting the speed with which he could recapture the form of old, form that, as Cane explained, was at the heart of everything good the Chiefs accomplished.

"That's the magic question," Cruden says.

"I have to be realistic - I have come off a knee reconstruction, so I don't think I'm going to light the world on fire in the first month or so in my return.

"But, in saying that, I do want to make sure that I'm continuing to grow and develop. I don't want to take backward steps."

A healthy Cruden is an obvious boon for the Chiefs and his abilities will be sorely needed in a side that have lost not only sevens duo Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams but key cogs Tim Nanai-Williams, Matt Symons and Ben Tameifuna.

Yet, for Cruden, the objective remains this same.

"We want to bring a Super title back to the Chiefs region," he says.

"If you don't want to do that then you're probably in the wrong team."