Aaron Cruden has had a brilliant year. He has emerged as a world class first-five and the gap between him and Daniel Carter is a lot less than it was.

But there is still a gap. The All Blacks haven't changed their mind about that or about Carter. They still see him as the best No10 in world rugby: perhaps even the best first-five to have ever played. It's just that injury hasn't allowed him to confirm that this year so, while he stays fit on this tour, he'll almost certainly be the one who starts.

As long as he avoids injury in Paris this morning, Carter will almost certainly be asked to steer the All Blacks to a revenge win in London. It's a huge game - bigger still for Carter as it will be his 100th.

The decision on selection when both are fit is still relatively straightforward. For all that Cruden has delivered this year, emerged as a genuine force, he's still not considered to be at Carter's level. Yet.


"I think people are seeing it as quite close and rightly so," says All Black coach Steve Hansen. "But to be fair to Dan he hasn't had a decent run for the last 18 months which has been frustrating for us but even more so for him.

"I think the extended break he is going to have will be really good for him. He'll be able to get rid of all the niggles and come back fresh a bit like Rich. He's come back with a sparkle in his eye and he is energised way more than he was. I think Dan will that too."

There's a message in there for Carter, which is that he can't retain his ranking forever if he is not playing. No one has lost faith in him or feels he's missing something - but the All Blacks are the All Blacks and the needs of the team will always be bigger than any one man.

By the middle of next year, when he returns from sabbatical, it will be all on between him and Cruden. It may not be that it becomes a straight head-to-head contest each test as in which one will start.

The philosophy around first-fives has changed in the past few years. Even five years ago, the attitude persisted that the first-five who started a game would finish unless he was injured. The New Zealand view has been that the importance of the No10 is so significant strategically, it's not a position where changing for any reason other than injury makes sense.

Not now - there has been a big shift on that front. A bit like halfback and hooker, first-five is seen more now as a two-man job within the All Blacks. When they train during the week, Carter and Cruden swap in and swap out of the backline all session. That's partly to be prepared for injury, partly because if, during the test, they don't feel they are getting what they need from the man on the field, they have an alternate option.

"The biggest shift we have made is in our philosophy is that it shouldn't be up to the 10 to run the game," says Hansen. "I have always felt that he's your main computer and the job of the computer is to sort everything out and come out with the right answer.

"That hasn't changed but what you want is everyone playing their part and delivering information that we can use as a team. About 90 per cent of ball goes through your 9 and 10 so you need them to be able to make good decisions.


"We are fortunate that we have three - four, if you include Tom Taylor - five-eighths and each of them is subtly different. So that does give us the opportunity to mix and match if you need to. Two of them are world-class and one is probably the best we have ever had thus far in the game.

"We have got a young guy in Beauden who is not far behind Crudes so we are very fortunate and that gives us flexibility."