Rugby: Mature Aaron Cruden coping with All Blacks setbacks

By Gregor Paul in Rome

Life has thrown a fair bit of bad luck at Aaron Cruden but he always finds a way to cope. He's a fighter, a believer - the sort of bloke who can absorb fate's cruel blows and yet never lose confidence in himself, never doubt what he can do on the rugby field.

Given the year he had in 2015, when injury saw him miss most of the season including the World Cup, he had grounds to imagine his fortunes would improve in 2016. In some part they did when he enjoyed an injury-free and impressive campaign with the Chiefs to earn the All Blacks No 10 jersey.

It was the moment he'd long waited for, to be the rightful No 1, to no longer be the understudy, to not be relying on injury to someone else to get his chance.

But he had only one full test before he damaged his neck early in the second and, while Cruden was recovering, Beauden Barrett emerged out of his cocoon all beautiful butterfly.

The year has belonged to Barrett since that second test in June. Cruden has, once again, found himself as the No 2. He waited six years for his chance, the door opened and in rushed Barrett ahead of him.

Lesser men would have fallen apart if forced to accept similar circumstances. Not Cruden. He seems at peace with how things have gone. He has no sense of entitlement, despite his wait and, as far as he is concerned, the landscape is no different now to how it has ever been.

It's the All Blacks. There will always be a monumental battle for the No 10 jersey and he can't assume anything.

"I know what type of person I am and I always want to be in the starting lineup but the reality is that only 15 guys can do that at one time," he says. "For me, it's about making sure I am clear in my role whether that is in the starting lineup or not. Prepare the best I can and I know the hunger and drive will never disappear. I think in a professional environment you have to be competitive, otherwise you will be found out pretty quickly and you won't last that long."

It is the art of channelling that competitiveness which has enabled Cruden to become such a valued and valuable member of the All Blacks. He's never been one to overplay his hand when his chance comes.

He's never been guilty of trying to run through his entire repertoire in the first 10 minutes of a test, just to show what he can do. His greatest strength is arguably that ability to stay composed and clear-headed and to play for the team and not himself.

That's what he will do in Rome tomorrow morning (NZT) when he starts his first test since playing Wales in June. In his head it won't be about emulating or going past Barrett, it will be about playing his game.

He won't get caught up trying to impress, knowing that doesn't work. He'll instead be all about the next task, building his game from one play to the next knowing the picture has 80 minutes to form.

"Beauden has done really well in patches this year and I don't know if I would see it as inspiring or frustrating," says Cruden. "I can't control what others do. I can control me and how I respond and how I react if I get an opportunity regardless of who has gone before me.

"It is about keeping your emotions in check and being really clear and decisive when you get out there. Sometimes it is better than others but you just try."

There's a calm about Cruden which is easy to imagine is his key strength. He is not easily ruffled or distracted. It's mostly innate. He was captain of Manawatu when just 20 and won the respect of older men as easily as he could run round them.

But he believes he's become more philosophical and better mentally equipped as he has become older.

"Maturity helps," he says. "When you are younger, rugby takes over a massive part of your life. When you have been in the environment for a bit longer, I am not saying it is not as important to you but you get more of a balance and appreciation for other things outside of rugby as well and that has been the case for me.

"Coming up as a young fella, I was pretty keen, pretty eager and maybe didn't get that balance right at times. It was a little bit detrimental but now I am able to work really hard when I need to and making sure that I have a check-list and tick everything off on the rugby side of things but then let it go.

"I try to enjoy the countries and cities we get to visit. It is pretty cool. And hopefully that balance trades when I get out there.

"I have got into a bit of reading of late, pick up a book and all of a sudden an hour or two can go. I try to get out there and experience life as much as I can."

- NZ Herald

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