Rugby: Cruden not much of a force off kicking tee

By Kris Shannon

Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images

With the All Blacks three months away from anointing Dan Carter's successor, a prime candidate for the role is unable to practice one of the key skills required.

Aaron Cruden has attempted only four shots at goal heading into the Chiefs' clash with the Force in Hamilton tonight, undone by both his own miscues and the unerring accuracy of Damian McKenzie.

While the Chiefs have soundly answered the question of how they will fit both diminutive playmakers into the run-on XV - with Cruden ever-present at first-five and McKenzie excelling at fullback - the team have been less successful in splitting the kicking duties in Super Rugby.

The most recent attempt at job-sharing came last weekend in Buenos Aires, when McKenzie deferred following his perfect 10-from-10 afternoon in Port Elizabeth the previous week.

Cruden began the game against the Jaguares with a straightforward penalty but then failed to add the extras for the Chiefs first two tries, missing a pair of tough kicks from either sideline.

But, trailing by one at the halftime break, the Chiefs could no longer afford to leave points on the tee. McKenzie was given control and the 20-year-old promptly justified that decision, nailing a couple of conversions from similarly wide positions to lift his side to a narrow victory.

McKenzie did it all with what's fast becoming a trademark smile, grinning at the top of his run-up as the whistles rained down from the Argentinian crowd.

His teammates and coaches were equally pleased but not everyone in the country would have been thrilled with McKenzie's consistent marksmanship.

Of all Carter's match-winning attributes, his goal-kicking was the one that in recent years had kept the maestro ahead of the younger contenders.

The All Blacks will need to replace Carter's precision for the June internationals against Wales, but Cruden's inactivity is hardly helping what many see as an otherwise exemplary case to take the No10 jersey.

In fairness to the 37-test All Black, it's hardly as if he has been idle, and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said the decision to hand Cruden the kicking duties against the Jaguares came due to his continual success at practice.

"Damian's been kicking really well but so has Aaron, he has been kicking a lot at training," Rennie said.

"We've been trying to get some more volume into Aaron's kicking and he was keen to kick [against the Jaguares]."

Willingness and training count for only so much, though. Little can be read into Cruden's kicking numbers of one-from-four this season; the sample size is simply too small. And, unfortunately for the All Blacks, McKenzie's mark of 21 from 25 is likely to keep it that way.

The fullback's 21 kicks made is the most in Super Rugby, while his success rate of 84 per cent is the third-best for any player with double-digit attempts.

Perhaps, in what could be a more comfortable victory tonight, Cruden might enjoy the chance to boost his own statistics.

All Black coach Steve Hansen would undoubtedly like to see that scenario unfold and, given rival Lima Sopoaga has made 75 per cent of his 20 attempts, Cruden could be forgiven for feeling the same way.

- NZ Herald

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