By the end of the third test against Wales, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would have been genuinely undecided about his best starting option at first-five.

On balance, it was still, probably, Aaron Cruden. The Chiefs No 10 came into the series as the preferred starter. He'd earned that right on the back of his development since 2012.

As Daniel Carter drifted in and out of the team between 2012 and 2014, Cruden expanded and refined his game. He built all the parts he needed and learned how to put them all together regardless of the pressure.

But after a solid performance in the first test against Wales this year, he only managed another 20 minutes before suffering a neck injury. In his absence, Beauden Barrett played two of his best tests for the All Blacks and if there had been a gap between the two, there wasn't much of one left by the time Wales were easily beaten in Dunedin.


The question of Cruden or Barrett became harder to answer as the latter's control, composure and patience were all strong. He kicked well. He tackled well and his running game was world class. He found holes and tormented Wales. They were coming of age performances and provided cast-iron proof that Barrett can be as effective from the start of a test as he can from the bench.

Pecking orders don't quickly or easily change with the All Blacks but Barrett is in the kind of form that makes decision-making a little tricky. The argument to start with Cruden in the All Blacks' next test has a strong historical base but possibly needs reinforcement through quality performance in the Super Rugby playoffs. Now would be the perfect time for Cruden to deliver the sort of magical, commanding performances he produces when he's at his best.

An away fixture in Cape Town against the relatively unknown force of the Stormers is a tough assignment for the Chiefs. The Stormers, while their attacking game can be limited and erratic, are always defensively driven and even at their lowest ebb, take a huge effort to be beaten.

They can defend without fault for 80 minutes and to break them, the Chiefs are going to need to cleverly work their attack game and this is where Cruden's opportunity sits.

Playoff games are the time for playmakers to come forward and take ownership.

It's a time for them to show they can live with the pressure: thrive in it and deliver the right skills and strategies. Last week in Dunedin, Cruden played well, but he might feel with hindsight, that he needed to have his hands on the ball more in the middle period of the second half. That was the period the Chiefs needed to strike, put their foot on the throat of the Highlanders and crank up the scoreboard.

23 Jul, 2016 6:00am
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They tried, as they so often do, to mix up their first receiver and allow Cruden to drift into wider positions where he can attack the line nearer to the touchline and use his pace and agility to stress less mobile defenders.

Cruden needs to be the key decision-maker for the Chiefs as much as he does for his All Blacks prospects - a bold, commanding, definitive performance this weekend would do plenty to reinforce the pre-June assessment of him as the country's premier No 10.

Just as true is that Barrett can keep the All Blacks picture ambiguous by giving another polished, diverse performance the way he has since he returned from test action in June.

He's done nothing to diminish the view of him as a supremely gifted footballer and all-round phenomenal talent, while also managing to cement the growing feeling he's growing, too, as a specialist first-five.

His influence in recent weeks has been major - showing in Sydney in the defeat of the Waratahs that he can take control of a game and put his side in all the right places. In Christchurch, he was the architect of the record win against the Crusaders, carefully picking when to pass, when to kick and when to run.

His goal-kicking, too, has steadied and his success rate is holding at 70 per cent. There's a bit of personal pride on the line, too for Barrett as he was gutted that he didn't play at his best in last year's final. It was his time to shine and steer the Hurricanes to a maiden title in front of their own.

But on the night, he made a few mistakes, lost his confidence and was comprehensively out played by Lima Sopoaga. It's critical for aspiring All Blacks first-fives to show they can deliver under pressure on the big stage and Hansen will be watching closely to see who is able to do just that.