Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Looming rematch pressure on first-five

Cruden must bring that energy, direction and goalkicking tomorrow if his name is going to be in a lengthy selectors' discussion for the return test with Ireland. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Cruden must bring that energy, direction and goalkicking tomorrow if his name is going to be in a lengthy selectors' discussion for the return test with Ireland. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Remember back to June 18 at the Cake Tin. I'll bet Aaron Cruden does.

The All Black five-eighths stepped out against Wales intent on showing his international credentials were back in sync and he was the best replacement for Daniel Carter after succumbing the previous year to a knee injury.

He'd been steady the week before at Eden Park and was about to sharpen that effort. He got a touch over 30 minutes until he hurt his neck. Beauden Barrett replaced him and hasn't relinquished the job until now.

Cruden's test diet in that five months has been five substitute appearances with Lima Sopoaga and Damian McKenzie sniffing chances to also put the heat on their teammate.

Stadio Olimpico in Rome tomorrow is a big stage for many in the All Black group and especially Cruden who is paired with his Chiefs teammate Tawera Kerr-Barlow and being asked to drive the plans.

The ground is not new for Cruden. He was sharp there in 2012 when he kicked all but one attempt in the 42-10 win against Italy and late in the game linked up with substitute Kerr-Barlow.

That match was a catalyst for Cruden turning in another strong performance the next week when he started against Wales and kicked all seven attempts in the comprehensive 33-10 victory. He was primed for any time Carter was out of action.

Cruden must bring that energy, direction and goalkicking tomorrow if his name is going to be in a lengthy selectors' discussion for the return test with Ireland. Maybe those wise men have another plan but it's difficult seeing past a Barrett/Cruden shootout for the No 10 jersey in Dublin.

They've seen Barrett in an extended test run this season against a variety of opponents and watched how his running game and punting skills create pressure on rivals. They've also seen the pressure his fluctuating goal-kicking creates on the All Blacks.

Since Barrett began a stretch of nine starts against Wales in Dunedin he succeeded with 39 of his 59 attempts at goal or a touch over 66 per cent. Cruden brings a different package and similar goal-kicking issues. He likes to stress defenders in a different way with his brave dexterity and ability to offload to teammates on the inside and outside channels.

That understanding should be there with Chiefs teammates Kerr-Barlow, Anton Lienert-Brown, Damian McKenzie and Sam Cane understanding his methods.

The All Blacks were stung by their historic loss last week and vacancies for the rematch will be on the minds of those playing tomorrow at the home ground of Lazio and Roma. That provides another type of pressure which Cruden and Co must combat.

- 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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