Cruden's instincts steer Chiefs to victory
A year on, Aaron Cruden looked very much the king kingpin of the Chiefs' backline in their 25-21 win over the Hurricanes at a sun-baked Mangatainoka on Saturday.
He zapped through gaps only he could spot, just as he did as a rookie with College Old Boys.
His offloads were just like last year's, when the Chiefs won the Super Rugby title, but this time he had the normal-sized Bundee Aki outside him instead of the heavyweight Sonny Bill Williams.
For now, Bundee and Tim Nanai-Williams as the centre experiment will have to do until Richard Kahui and Andrew Horrell return from injury.
All they have to do is sit on Cruden's shoulder, as Sonny Bill happily did.
Cruden will need protection, though, because he holds the ball so late before flicking it on. Former Manawatu man Andre Taylor forgot about past loyalties and nailed Cruden late, and lock Jason Eaton gave him a slap around in a tackle.
In the interests of preservation, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie wisely whisked Cruden off late in the game.
Cruden, with a slight groin twinge, left the goalkicking to Gareth Anscombe.
As the minutes counted down, Ardie Savea dropped Augustine Pulu, the exciting young Counties-Manukau halfback, on his little head late. Rennie was not pleased, and in a competition game, a citing might have resulted.
The touch judge flapped his pennant and hollered into his earpiece, but referee Glen Jackson just whistled for game off.
For three-quarters of the hit-out on Neil Symonds' firm and uneven paddock, the Chiefs had the drop on the 'Canes - not bad for a team which flew into Palmerston North only that morning and bused through the Manawatu Gorge to the heart of the old Bush Rugby Union.
Two of their tries were scored in a flash, both set up by halfbacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow and the Chiefs' No 3 Pulu, who did a Usain Bolt when he spied the 'Canes flying off the back of a lineout. The Chiefs bombed two other tries.
As with such trials, it became a personnel mishmash midway through the second half. Julian Savea monstrously bumped off Sonny Bill Aki, and suddenly it was 17-7.
Until then, the Chiefs' missiles in white had mown down everything in yellow.
The rucks are still the game's ugliness, and the Chiefs might have had three men binned for the sins they committed there. But their first-half forward pack was potent, Manawatu lock Michael FitzGerald especially busy motoring around the paddock.
Turbos captain Nick Crosswell started but had the misfortune to be sacrificially subbed off when hooker Hika Elliott was binned.
At halftime, Rennie shunted on a complete new pack, including Brodie Retallick, who looked and played like an All Black.
Manawatu's Asaeli Tikoirotuma saw a ton of action and, with his renewed confidence, just needed to hit the throttle when gaps beckoned, as Cruden did.
We spotted Manawatu's two affiliates, Callum Gibbins and Papa Wharewera, warming up, but neither had a number on his back. They didn't get on, and Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett said he had to give some of his main men a fair trot, which sounded reasonable.
The Hurricanes will be back in Manawatu to meet the Stormers on April 26. By then, who knows? Gibbins could be in the mix, because he is burning up at practices.
Scorers: Chiefs 25 (Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Asaeli Tikoirituma, Bundee Aki, Tim Nanai-Williams tries; Gareth Anscombe con, pen) Hurricanes 21 (Julian Savea, Ardie Savea, Faifili Levave tries; Beauden Barrett con, James Marshall 2 con) HT 10-0.