Gifford: Aaron Cruden's presence is growing

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2014
Aaron Cruden
PETER DRURY/Fairfax NZ
NEW ROLE: All Blacks first-five Aaron Cruden has been elevated to a captaincy role with the Chiefs.

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OPINION: You wouldn't expect to learn much in the opening game in a competition lasting nearly six months.

But the Chiefs' remarkable victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch not only stunned the full house, but also provided some major lessons for the rest of the season.

Aaron Cruden confirmed he's the best first-five in Super Rugby, a position he's actually occupied for the last two seasons.

His presence, which borders on the serene, spreads to the men around him, to the point where, despite having just a third of the ball all game, there was never a hint of panic in the Chiefs backline.

An old Crusaders mantra, which seems to have been absorbed by the Chiefs, is that, if your defensive patterns are strong enough you can dominate a game even when the other side has the ball.

On defence on Friday night they ran a second line. On the occasions when the first tackler was beaten there was a second defender ready to stop the attack. It takes huge energy, as well as total commitment, to thicken the defence so much, but if you have both it makes running through a briar patch look a breeze.

So we know it's not enough to just deny the Chiefs the ball, to pressure them there's a need to find vulnerable spots to attack.

The big question is whether there are susceptible points at all. This is a wonderfully well coached Chiefs outfit, so good luck to the video analysts as they reel through hours and hours of game time hunting for weaknesses.

As is often the case, there was probably more for the losing team to learn than for the victors.

On the bright side for the Crusaders Richie McCaw played like Richie McCaw, totally committed, without a sign of easing himself into the season.

But what does now present coach Todd Blackadder with a situation calling as much for diplomacy as for judgement of form is how much more dynamic the loose forward play became when Matt Todd was subbed on. Every time Todd touched the ball it was like plugging into a high voltage wall socket.

When Kieran Read returns next week there's just no question he, McCaw and Todd are the trio you want on the field. The issue is that both McCaw and Todd are designated openside flankers. Balancing individual wishes (reasonably enough McCaw has said he prefers to stay at No 7) with the needs of the team will be a vital process this week.

Goalkicking will weigh heavily on the minds in Christchurch. Eight misses was, obviously, the winning or losing of the game, and it would be remarkable if Tom Taylor wasn't first cab off the rank for the game with the Blues this Friday.

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The strengths in the Crusaders are still considerable. The tight five is the best in New Zealand, and if Andy Ellis can't make the All Blacks it doesn't stop him playing like one. There's something ironic in the fact he's now in better form than he was when he was in the All Black squad.

One of the oddest aspects of an odd game was the refereeing of Chris Pollock. The only thing that could have made the shoulder charge on McCaw by Jamie Mackintosh more blatant would have been if Mackintosh had carried a placard saying "Bin Me." The decision to only award a penalty became even more bizarre when a few minutes later Dominic Bird was binned for a technical offence at a breakdown.

A grace note to finish came from Ryan Crotty, asked after the game how it felt to see old team-mate Robbie Fruean storming over for a try. "We're friends before rugby," said Crotty. "I'm just glad to see him so healthy."

- Sunday Star Times

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