Steve Hansen believes it was Aaron Cruden's best game in an All Blacks jersey.
Cruden says he had an armchair ride behind a superb forward pack and feels he can still get better, but there is little doubt that the Chiefs pivot's proactive approach to "driving" the All Blacks' game went a long way towards creating their record 51-20 Bledisloe Cup-clinching victory over the Wallabies on Saturday night.
His combination with his old Manawatu team-mate Aaron Smith was functioning at full capacity at Eden Park behind the rampant front eight. As a result New Zealand played at a speed and width and with an audaciousness that the Australians could not live with.
Some were saying after the dismal 12-12 draw with the Wallabies in the opening test in a rain-drenched Sydney a week earlier that the All Blacks were just not the same force without Dan Carter, but this performance has surely put those criticisms to bed.
All Blacks head coach Hansen felt Cruden had had his best test in terms of the way he "stood up and drove the game", while backs coach Ian Foster was pleased that the player had taken on board the lessons learnt from Sydney and applied them in Auckland.
"He played what was in front of him, helped our structures along the way and when you compare with what happened last week, he'd be very happy with how he played tonight," Hansen said.
Cruden was clearly chuffed to hear the head coach had been singing his praises to the gathered media at a post-match press conference but wasn't getting carried away with the accolade, knowing the Rugby Championship has only just started and Carter will be back from his broken leg bone later in the series.
"I'm pretty happy with how I went, but I still know I can sharpen up in a lot of areas and still be even better than that," Cruden said.
"But that's pretty nice to hear that coming from your head coach and for me I just wanted to get out there, play my natural game and get the ball in hand a little bit.
"The forwards set the platform and just really allowed me to do that."
The two Aarons - Smith and Cruden - had been challenged by the coaches during the week to be a lot more proactive after a passive performance in Sydney where they had waited for the game to come to them. At Eden Park, helped by the dominant forward display having them regularly on the front foot, the pair really took the attack to the Wallabies.
"I think throughout the squad everyone was a lot more enthusiastic, we were on our toes, not getting caught on our heels like we were last week.
"We wanted to take it to Australia, a little bit like what they did to us last week. They caught us on the bounce a wee bit last week and we wanted to be in the control, controlling the tempo, controlling the pace of the game and it was pretty rewarding to see the tries we produced tonight - a few from within our own half, a few set-piece plays and the boys up front getting a few pushovers as well," Cruden said.
Another who copped some flak for his performance, including a sin-binning, when he replaced Cruden in the first-five position a week earlier, Beauden Barrett, was back to his confidence-brimming best, this time coming on at fullback when Cory Jane was invalided out early in the second half.
It helps Barrett came on with the All Blacks having built an 23-6 halftime lead and he admitted he enjoyed the ride with the greater freedom of forward dominance, a 17-point lead and the greater space to attack from fullback.
"The difference between last week and this week was that we were anticipating that there would be space there. Last week we were a bit more hesitant, but this week we were just going to back our skills and going for it and obviously the conditions helped too," Barrett said.
- Fairfax Media
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