OPINION: What a mesmerising cameo from Aaron Cruden.
In just his fourth test start, the 23-year-old prospect confirmed his credentials on Saturday night, proved he is ready to command at this level and signalled his desire to be more than just another in a long list of understudies.
It's hard to fathom that just last year the injury-prone Colin Slade was the preferred deputy at No 10. How long ago that now seems.
On his adopted home patch, Cruden may have only lasted 23 minutes before his dodgy knee gave way, but that's all it took to lay on two tries for his impressive Chiefs partner Sonny Bill Williams - one with a freakish SBW-esque offload - and display mature guidance that defied his experience.
Talk about jink and jive, Cruden's ability to step off both feet and take the ball to the line in two hands had the Irish bamboozled. The visitors were relieved to prematurely see the back of him.
Maybe Cruden and Aaron Smith wanted to celebrate a special night for the Manawatu. This was, after all, the first time since 1981 that a halfback and first-five from that region had featured for the All Blacks. Mark Donaldson and Doug Rollerson were the last. But it won't be long before the two Aaron's again achieve the feat.
Dan Carter is the world's best pivot, but you get the feeling Cruden will grow to a similar status, if he gets the chance to play nearly as many tests. Look no further than Cruden's unflinching character when the Irish got their timing wrong while charging his conversion attempt. Head down, unfazed, Cruden banged it over.
At least now there won't be a collective gasp of angst when Carter is injured. The nation understands and trusts Cruden to fill those classy boots.
It's worth noting, too, that Taranaki's Beauden Barrett will benefit immensely from his prolonged debut.
Also put a tick beside Reporoa youngster Sam Cane. In two tests we have seen why the 20-year-old terrier was elevated ahead of Matt Todd and Luke Braid, despite competing for game-time with Tanerau Latimer at the Chiefs this season.
He has, potentially, been anointed Richie McCaw's successor.
In Hamilton, an unsuspecting viewer would never have guessed Cane was making his starting debut for the All Blacks. The most pleasing aspect of his two tries was his anticipation and support play.
A sign of any quality openside flanker is the ability to lurk off the shoulder of game-breakers and finish the movement. Josh Kronfeld perfected the skill.
Cane is in the same mould.His covering defence was another exceptional aspect. On one occasion, he crushed Irish second-five Paddy Wallace, then sprung to his feet to gain the steal. Tana Umaga, a classic leader in this regard, would be proud.
Cane capped his efforts with lineout takes and hard graft. It will be interesting to see him up against Australia's David Pockock. One feels he has the ticker to take on any opponent. The fact he left with 10-minutes remaining to a standing ovation depicts his standout performance. Well done, son.
There was a feeling Hosea Gear and Liam Messam were on trial, playing for their futures at Waikato Stadium. Both should take a slice of redemption from their efforts.
Gear's decision to turn down a lucrative Japanese offer was vindicated. Messam got the chance to exorcise the demons of his World Cup axing. Gear, however, is locked in the outside back log-jam.
With Julian Savea, Zac Guildford, Cory Jane, Richard Kahui, Ben Smith, and Tamati Ellison fighting for inclusion, causalities are inevitable for the Rugby Championship.
- Fairfax Media
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