Rugby: Beauden Barrett v Aaron Cruden - Battle brewing for All Blacks' No 10

By Kris Shannon

New Zealand All Blacks 1st-five Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett compete for the ball with Wales centre Jonathan Davies. Photo / Getty Images.
New Zealand All Blacks 1st-five Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett compete for the ball with Wales centre Jonathan Davies. Photo / Getty Images.

A Super Rugby semifinal needs no supplementary narratives. Yet, tonight in Wellington, it will be difficult to ignore the battle brewing for the All Blacks' No10 jersey.

In one corner stands the incumbent, whose solid season has guided the Chiefs to within 80 minutes of a third final in five years. In the other awaits the challenger, whose spectacular form has the Hurricanes tantalisingly close to repeat appearances in the competition showpiece.

The first fives have been pivotal in leading flawed squads past various obstacles and towards tonight's showdown at Westpac Stadium.

But even if Beauden Barrett has in recent weeks seized the headlines, starting with his displays against Wales in Aaron Cruden's absence, the latter is far from focused on outshining his understudy. There are more important concerns - like, say, winning a semifinal.

And then there's the fact that if the All Blacks, rather than the semifinalists, were running out this evening, Cruden would almost certainly still be the one kicking off, a pecking order that would probably persist even after another standout effort from Barrett.

So, Cruden insists, don't assign too many larger ramifications to what the rivals accomplish tonight: "Playing in a semifinal motivates me," he says, "not really one-on-one competitions."

Still, Cruden can't help but have heard the calls clamouring for Barrett to finally earn elevation at All Black level, especially after such a virtuoso outing in last weekend's quarter-final shutout of the Sharks. And the Chiefs co-captain couldn't ignore what he was watching last weekend as his team sat down in Cape Town to watch the Hurricanes book their ticket to the semifinals.

"He's playing some really good rugby," Cruden said. "In the All Blacks environment over his career, he probably hasn't been given the opportunity as much in the starting role.

"But he's really at the top of his game at the moment and he's going to be one of the players we have to try and shut down if we want to win this game."

Easier said than done, particularly if Barrett begins to pull the same strings he had firmly in his grasp last weekend. Cruden acknowledged there was little that could be done once Barrett received an opportunity; the idea was to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible.

"You can't limit every opportunity that players have, so you just have to do the best with what you can," he said. "If we're able to complete our sets and be really clinical with the ball to apply pressure, and then defensively be disciplined in our structure and our systems, hopefully that limits their opportunities."

That aim, along with the forecast rain, may lead to more kicking than what the Chiefs would ideally want, especially after Barrett ran a wet-weather clinic in the win over the Sharks.

"[The Hurricanes] really controlled that game well, they played at the right end of the field and were able to apply a lot of pressure," Cruden said.

"Rugby can be an easy game if it's played at the right end of the field and you're smart with what you do with the ball."

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 08 Dec 2016 00:06:41 Processing Time: 647ms