Scotty Stevenson: The magical illusion of Aaron Cruden

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Watching Aaron Cruden in the line was akin to playing a game of human whack-a-mole. Photo / Getty
Watching Aaron Cruden in the line was akin to playing a game of human whack-a-mole. Photo / Getty

There was a moment on Saturday night in all the heat and the noise and the nor-west wind at AMI Stadium when Aaron Cruden simply vanished, only to materialise seconds later so far from where he was last spotted that it was all you could do to rub your eyes and wonder how he did it.

There is a subtlety to Cruden's game that is made possibly only by a supreme confidence in his one-on-one ability. He starts games in much the same way as a prize-fighter starts a bout; he works his way into the contest through process and orthodoxy; he jabs and feints, defends, and retreats. He is conscious of landing a few early punches but he is thinking rounds ahead, noting deficiencies and patterns.

He began this way against the Crusaders on Saturday night. It was his first game since his knee - and his world cup dreams - disintegrated on this very same ground back in April last year. He stood in the pocket, made a couple of darts at the line, and cleared the ball when required.

He took the first pass early and often, a safe pair of hands for Tawera Kerr-Barlow, a calm head in the early storm.

In the first ten minutes he did the things we all expect a fly half to do. He stood in the places we expect a fly half to stand. He watched and waited and for the ball and showed glimpses of his undeniable brilliance. And then he did what Aaron Cruden does best: he evaporated. One minute he was at first receiver, the next he was in midfield, then he trailed back behind the attack line and, all of a sudden, he was back where he began, four phases later.

From those early touches, he had gleaned all the intelligence he needed to remote control the game. Such is his presence on the field that even when he had no direct involvement in the play, he was still pulling the strings. His team mates filled whichever space he had just vacated, and made room for him whenever and wherever he reappeared. When the Chiefs attacked, watching Cruden in the line was akin to playing a game of human whack-a-mole.

There is a science at play here; a mastery of illusion and sleight of hand. At 80 kilograms dripping wet, Cruden is not the kind of player who will knock over defenders. Instead he bounces out and lets his wingers hit first phase ball from the lineout, or Charlie Ngatai bend the line inside. He takes the pass at odd angles and holds defenders. He hides behind screens and re-emerges on an outside mismatch. You half expect him to yell 'surprise!' as he glides through a gap.

And even while all this is happening, even while he was happy to roam the backline and job share with his blindside wingers and his second five and the impressive Damian McKenzie - as precocious a player as this country has ever produced - he still managed to piece together more touches than all but one other fly half in the opening round of Super Rugby. It was a masterclass of deception and decision making.

There was one play in particular, a Crusaders short lineout just inside their own half, in which it was impossible not to discern Cruden's dominion over the game. He lined up three wide in defence, only to watch Andy Ellis despatch the ball from the box. He turned to see Damian McKenzie slot calmly into the first receiver spot from the resultant ruck and so he simply kept his width. Two passes later, he took the ball inside his own 22, carved inside the slide and peeled off 40 metres.

It was the kind of play that reminded you of just why Aaron Cruden is so valuable to this Chiefs team, and just why he is so hard to defend against. The reality is that he is the great illusionist, a side-stepping, shape-changing amusement park shaman. And he announced his return to Super Rugby by sprinkling his own brand of magic dust around AMI Stadium, leaving us rubbing our eyes, and wondering how he does it.

- NZ Herald

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