Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Cruden's time to shine in Aussie

Five-eighths gets opportunity to secure his test spot - and to set record straight after his wobbly 2010 debut.

Not one, but two supreme opportunities are there for Aaron Cruden in Sydney on Saturday.

Dan Carter's calf strain puts Cruden back in the No 10 jersey at ANZ Stadium for the first time since September 2010, a match in which the All Blacks scraped to a 23-22 win and only after the little Chiefs playmaker was replaced by Colin Slade, who steadied a wobbling ship on debut.

It was Cruden's first start in a test after playing five as a substitute and it wasn't a happy one for him, his core roles of finding touch with clearances and the 10m mark with restarts not quite up to scratch. Then coach Graham Henry even had to defend him afterwards, saying the criticism from the public was typical of the "tall poppy syndrome" in this country.

His next test was little more than a year later when he was told by Henry to put away his skateboard and join the All Blacks squad after Carter's groin injury in the World Cup.

Cruden, now 24, will return to ANZ Stadium a much better player, someone with consecutive Super rugby titles to his credit and the knowledge that he has very nearly closed the gap on Carter. Perhaps the only thing Carter has on Cruden now is his kicking game, the Crusaders player still one of the best when kicking for territory and currently a fair way ahead when kicking for goal.

Cruden's lack of goalkicking practice with the Chiefs this season because of an ongoing groin issue means he has not been kicking as well as he might. He missed three relatively easy attempts in the Super rugby final against the Brumbies in Hamilton a fortnight ago and afterwards struggled to explain why his timing was off. "No, I can't," he said then. "It's been a tricky old season."

With halfback Piri Weepu out, Beauden Barrett, likely to be in the reserves, is the only back-up goalkicker for coach Steve Hansen.

But what Cruden does have is an excellent recent track record with not only the Chiefs but also the All Blacks.

He started the first two tests against France in June when Carter was ruled out with a broken hand and showed his ability when adapting from a running game in Auckland to more of a kicking strategy in Christchurch, a switch which helped his side to an impressive 30-0 victory.

"We are really fortunate that we've got more than one world-class five-eighths and Aaron's been on top of his game all season," Hansen said yesterday. "He's just gone through two major matches with a lot of intensity and pressure [for the Chiefs] so he's ready to rumble. He's also played a couple of tests this year and also understands what we are trying to do - he's part of the leadership group so it's business as usual."

Carter, 31, will be back. But it was significant that his latest leg problem happened so quickly after he announced a six-month break from rugby next year to put himself in the best possible shape for a 2015 World Cup defence. His desire to play in a cup final in his fourth time of trying will fuel his return but it might not be easy, especially if Cruden takes his chances in coming weeks. And where better to begin than where he learned some of his most important lessons at the start of his career.

- APNZ

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