Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Who won Cruden vs Sopoaga?

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

Wouldn't you like to drill into the thinking of Ian Foster and Grant Fox - two men who were backline directors and now make those decisions about the All Blacks.

Two men who felt the burn of pressure at five eighths and understand the nuances of that responsibility and who best fits the template for the June inquisition from Wales.

For the last four years they have helped coach Steve Hansen pick teams and watched as Aaron Cruden and others dovetailed into the All Black patterns when Daniel Carter was out of action.

Then last year, when Cruden was hurt they used Sopoaga against the Springboks and got a significant Four Nations dividend.

Neither made the World Cup squad - Carter was the specialist five eighths with Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett as cover and utility options.

Now with Carter gone, the All Blacks are looking for a specialist to guide the side and control the rhythm of a test series against Wales.

Cruden and Sopoaga squared off at Waikato Stadium in a game where their coaches demanded contrasting styles with Cruden and the Chiefs looking to shift and use possession while Sopoaga and his mates went for the kick, chase and defend methods.

The questions for the national selectors are about the ability of Cruden and Sopoaga in defending the inside channels and whether they can change style and how that measures up.

Is Cruden's tactical kicking game sharp enough and his goalkicking reliable and can Sopoaga gun, pass and ignite a range of attacking talent around him?

We saw the Highlanders five eighths put the hammer down when defenders failed to come up in a line while his distribution was sharp on either flank. He kicked strongly around his intermission for a concussion check but there were three tackles misses on his match stats.

There was only one miss for Cruden who faced a heavier tackle count.

He made several clean breaks and beat defenders but was also isolated several times when he pushed his running game while Sopoaga had a superior goal-kicking strike rate.

If both five eighths survive the next few weeks they will be in the All Black squad.

Then it will be a case of how to get the best out of them.

Cruden's experience and ability to unleash his support runners seems to fit more snugly into the All Blacks ethos and he must be the in pole position to begin the series with Wales while if things go well, Sopoaga might start the final test as Barrett is used in the cover duties from the pine.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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