Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: What should Steve Hansen do with Aaron Cruden

If Aaron Smith is problem number one for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen then Aaron Cruden is number two.

Calling Cruden a problem is not strictly fair but the situation with him is tenuous and needs delicate and careful managing. He's at a career crossroads - one that many a player before him has reached and struggled to determine the best direction - and must decide whether his future lies in New Zealand or overseas, most likely France.

Montpelier are reportedly about to offer him $1.3 million a season if he joins them after the British and Irish Lions tour next year.

It is life-changing money and at 27-years-old, he could easily knock out at least six good years offshore and never have to think about money again. Tempting - of course it is. But at 27 he could also have at least six more good years as an All Black and does he really want to reach retirement wondering what he could have achieved in the international arena?

Is he ready to submit to the lure of Europe and watch the All Blacks from afar - no longer part of it all?

It's only a guess, but if he was asked in June this year where he saw himself playing in 2018, he'd most likely, without hesitation, have said New Zealand.

He was handed the All Blacks No 10 jersey for the first test against Wales and no one disputed he'd earned it. Back then, the bigger question was in regard to what Beauden Barrett's future looked like.

He was coming off contract this year and in huge global demand. Would he be comfortable committing long term to New Zealand with Cruden ensconced in the starting team and Barrett operating in a cameo role off the bench?

In the space of three months the picture has been turned upside down. Barrett has taken possession of the No 10 jersey and is playing with such freedom, confidence and control that he is head and shoulders the best playmaker in world rugby.

He's signed through to the next World Cup and that has left Cruden having to decide whether he can usurp the young pretender and if he can't, will he be happy with a long term bench role.

It's not an easy decision for Cruden to make and the next seven weeks or so may have a significant bearing on his thinking. Montpelier - all offshore suitors - will be looking to sign off on any deal by March next year, if not earlier.

So the next five All Blacks tests will give Cruden a good feel for what sort of role he is going to play in this new world of Barrett stardom. How much game time will he be given and will he be able to exert the sort of influence he wants from the bench?

It's a big question. Barrett always gave the impression that while he was striving to start, he was content, grateful even, for any opportunity to play for the All Blacks.

Will it be the same with Cruden who has been around since 2010 - a period in which he had to serve an apprenticeship behind Daniel Carter? Cruden has done second fiddle and Hansen knows that. The battle for the All Blacks coach is going to be continuing to reward Barrett's sensational form yet somehow giving Cruden enough of a role to keep him motivated and hungry to remain part of things longer term.

- NZ Herald

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