After a three-year stint in France, Aaron Cruden has returned to the Chiefs for the 2020 Super Rugby season. He speaks with Christopher Reive about his reasons for coming home.
Aaron Cruden had never planned on returning to Super Rugby.
When he left Kiwi shores in for France in 2017, there was little more for him to achieve on home soil. With two Super Rugby titles, 50 All Blacks caps and a Rugby World Cup winner's medal to his credit, Cruden shipped out to Montpellier on a three-year deal looking for a new challenge.
He got exactly that; faced with a new style of rugby and injury concerns throughout his time in France and, about six months ago, becoming a father for the first time.
It was around the same time that Cruden and wife Grace were expecting Emilia to arrive that he got a phone call that would open a new path for their immediate future.
"It wasn't on the cards to start with. But when the Chiefs approached us and threw the idea out there and said 'sit back and think about it'," Cruden explains, "then as time went on a few different factors came into it and we thought actually it might be really nice to head back home and have another run around and challenge ourselves in a different way after being away for a couple of years.
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"That's how it all panned out and now that I'm here I'm really excited about the challenge."
There had been speculation the Cruden would make a return to Super Rugby during the 2019 season, as several teams were rumoured to be trying to lure the former All Black back to home shores.
The 31-year-old says the talk about a return – either during the 2019 season of after - was exactly that, with no substance behind it. Cruden confirmed he and his representatives at Esportif only started engaging with the Chiefs about a return around August – after the 2019 season was already over.
"It was all sort of more hearsay than anything else," he admits. "I have relationships with certain guys and from the Hurricanes - Ngani Laumape sent me a private message just asking what I was up to and sort of saying they needed a first-five but there wasn't any more dialogue with the Hurricanes other than that.
"When this opportunity with the Chiefs came up, it wasn't something I had really thought about, but when the opportunity was presented in front of me it was something that really excited me straight away.
"I've spent a lot of time here in Hamilton and have extremely fond memories of my time here so if I was to come back to a Super Rugby team I think in my heart of hearts it was probably always going to be the Chiefs if we could make it work and that seems to have been the case at the moment."
The offer came at an opportune time for Cruden and his family. His contract in France had expired and returning to New Zealand would give Emilia the chance to meet and spend time with their families.
"There were probably a few factors in the decision (to come back). Having a young daughter now and bringing her back closer to a lot of her family and a lot of our friends that if we had stayed away maybe wouldn't have had the opportunity to spend as much time with her as they have. I suppose the perspective and priorities change a bit when kids come into the mix and your family grows. So that was certainly part of it.
"It's been a very cool six months since Emilia has arrived, even just becoming a father puts rugby into perspective as well. Rugby is a huge passion of mine and I absolutely love it, but it's just balancing that time now between professionalism and making sure my rugby commitments are fulfilled, but also spending time away from that and being a family man as well."
Cruden will be with the Chiefs for the full 2020 Super Rugby season, with his playing future after that point yet to be decided. He says while there had been reports that he had signed on with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan later this year, that contract was yet to be finalised.
Presumed to be the first-choice No10 for the Chiefs this season, Cruden returned to the team this week after some time off over the holiday period, and says he was yet to have discussions over where his role would be with the team this year.
Damian McKenzie is expected to return to fullback, leaving Cruden to contend against Tiaan Falcon and Kaleb Trask for the No10 jersey.
While he'd love the opportunity to reclaim it, Cruden says he knows part of his role within the team is to help develop the young players.
"To be honest, I'm just really happy and privileged to be back in the environment and anyway that I can contribute – whether that's on the field of off the field – I'll certainly do so. I'm a competitive bugger so of course I want to be playing but ultimately it's what's best for the team. We'll get a feel of what that looks like over the next few weeks; if that's a starting jersey I'll be absolutely stoked, if it's off the bench or not in the match-day 23 then I'll help prepare the guys as much as I can and ultimately try to achieve our goal of winning a Super Rugby title.
"I guess people that know me would say I'm very competitive; I always want to be involved and in that starting team, but now that there's a lot of young guys and exciting talent coming through, they're going to get their opportunities as well. Whenever I get mine I'll be excited by it and make the most of it and contribute as much as I can."