Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Aaron Cruden given opportunity off the bench

Aaron Cruden gets a chance to re-establish himself in the All Blacks jersey. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Aaron Cruden gets a chance to re-establish himself in the All Blacks jersey. Picture / Brett Phibbs

A potential world record-setting game was never going to be the time for the All Blacks to throw caution to the wind with their selections. That can wait.

There's a trip to Europe where the focus will change and the fringe candidates can have their time in the sun. This week is all about one thing - winning an 18th consecutive test and to do that, head coach Steve Hansen has stuck with the bulk of the side that destroyed the Boks in their last encounter.

Julian Savea comes in for Waisake Naholo as the only change to the starting team and one that is replacing like with like. The only other changes are on the bench where Malakai Fekitoa replaces George Moala and Aaron Cruden returns instead of Lima Sopoaga.

And it is the return of Cruden that may prove to be crucial. He has recovered from a niggling groin injury and is ready to re-establish himself.

His presence on the bench gives the All Blacks the potential to significantly change things tactically.

That is important as surely there is going to come a time this season when the All Blacks aren't able to control the game exactly as they want. It hasn't happened yet in 2016 - no one they have played has been able to exert pressure for long enough to force the All Blacks into any kind of major tactical or personnel re-think mid-game.

They have been able to use their bench for interest sake rather than as a catalyst to instigate momentum change or claw the game back.

A much-improved Wallabies side that has had two cracks at the All Blacks already, may be able to ask sustained questions that no other team has. Maybe Australia will stay in the game for long enough to put doubt in All Blacks minds and force them to dig deeper than they have and to amend their approach.

If that is the case, then Cruden will become a trump card. What's easy to forget given the rise and rise of Beauden Barrett is that Cruden is a world class first-five, too.

He can't match Barrett for out and out pace, but he's nevertheless a supremely effective linebreaker and capable of torturing any defence with his running game which is based on his agility and timing.

Even if the All Blacks have the game safely under control, there will be plenty of interest in seeing how much game time Cruden is given.

It was injury that saw him give up the All Blacks No 10 jersey to Barrett in June and injury that has prevented him from mounting a serious bid to take it back.

Now that he's fit, will the selectors give him a reasonable opportunity to stake a claim that he should have it back? Barrett has had a heavy workload - having played nearly every game for the Hurricanes and mostly every game for the All Blacks and there are still five tests left this year.

On top of all that, Cruden is also fielding offshore offers - most notably from Montpellier in France.

Hansen has told Cruden he remains an integral part of their set-up: that he's a leader and decision-maker they greatly value. All of that is true, but seeing actions back up those words would go a long way towards influencing Cruden's ultimate decision.

The matchday 23 is (with Test caps in brackets):

1. Joe Moody (19)
2. Dane Coles (45)
3. Owen Franks (86)
4. Brodie Retallick (56)
5. Samuel Whitelock (81)
6. Jerome Kaino (73)
7. Matt Todd (5)
8. Kieran Read - capt (93)
9. TJ Perenara (25)
10. Beauden Barrett (45)
11. Julian Savea (48)
12. Ryan Crotty (23)
13. Anton Lienert-Brown (5)
14. Israel Dagg (57)
15. Ben Smith (57)

16. Codie Taylor (10)
17. Wyatt Crockett (54)
18. Charlie Faumuina (41)
19. Liam Squire (5)
20. Ardie Savea (8)
21. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (23)
22. Aaron Cruden (42)
23. Malakai Fekitoa (19)

- NZ Herald

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