Hard work and resolve pays off for No12 understudy.

Ryan Crotty has rarely had it easy during his professional rugby career, so the sight of 110kg Wales centre Jamie Roberts charging towards him today is unlikely to faze him.

In February, 2011, before the Super Rugby season kicked off, Crusader Crotty was at a pre-season media event in the big western stand of the now broken AMI Stadium in Christchurch. The questions directed at him weren't promising in terms of the months ahead - how would he react to the challenge the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams would present?

During that tumultuous year of the Canterbury earthquakes, he was stuck behind Williams and Robbie Fruean. Once Williams left for the Chiefs, and Crotty once more established himself as the first-choice No12 at the Crusaders, his path to the All Blacks remained blocked by Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and of course, Williams. During that time he never wavered. He made his test debut in 2013 and has been capped 15 times since, but usually as injury cover. The offers came from overseas, but Crotty, now 27, was determined to follow his dream, even after he missed selection for last year's World Cup.

He has always been highly rated for his decision-making, handling skills and power packed into his compact frame - including early on by All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith - but the stars have never consistently aligned for him. Now, with Nonu and Smith gone, and Charlie Ngatai out with concussion issues, Crotty has the opportunity to go from the All Blacks' nearly man to first-choice No12.


"I've never taken it for granted and I've always worked hard for it," he says. "I'm glad I stuck around and worked hard to give myself this opportunity.

"I guess everything happens for a reason. It has surely shaped me into the player I am today, to have to work hard to get these opportunities. It's tough when you've always had world-class midfielders in front of you. I just hope I can take this opportunity with both hands and play as well as I can to help the team get the win."

It has been a momentous few months for Crotty, who celebrated his 100th match for the Crusaders in their big victory over the Jaguares in Christchurch in April. A fortnight earlier he showcased his power and speed with a hat-trick of tries against the Lions in Johannesburg.

For All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, Crotty's determination despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles is an example he hopes others follow.

"We've often talked about young players who have got the desire to be All Blacks not running away from not being selected, but staying and working and being patient and developing their games to the point where eventually they get an opportunity," Hansen says. "Ryan's had a few - his first game was in 2013 which is a few years ago now - but he's never played a poor game for the All Blacks.

"Now it's his turn and he doesn't need to do anything other than be Ryan Crotty and be the player we expect him to be."

Crotty has started only one test with midfield partner Malakai Fekitoa - against Scotland at Murrayfield in 2014 - but is excited about rekindling their relationship.

"I know what an exciting player he is and I think we can form a really good combination in the midfield. I'm confident that I've put in the work this week to play as well as I can this weekend."

The morning Crotty, the fourth All Black from the small New Brighton club in Christchurch's eastern suburbs, was named in the starting line-up, he received a text from his former club coach Bill Barry, which said: "We know you'll take the opportunity. Well done and good luck."

It's a sentiment many All Blacks supporters will share, especially those from Crusaders country, given Crotty's refusal to take the easy option.

"I set some goals last year - I was unfortunate that some of them didn't work out, but I stuck at it and it's always been a dream to be a part of this team and add to this jersey."