Cruden performance puts pressure on Hansen
Aaron Cruden did little to quell the All Blacks first five-eighth debate tonight.
Steve Hansen has consistently followed a loyalty mantra, backing his incumbents to raise their game but selecting Cruden tested that theory to the brink this week.
Mirroring many of his rusty team-mates, who failed to gel after arriving from their respective Super Rugby teams, Cruden's limited preparation was evident throughout the sloppy test.
Returning on the back of just one-and-a-half games for the Chiefs after breaking his thumb, Cruden appeared out of sync. He didn't have the requested platform from the tight-five - with the All Blacks scrum in particular shunted around - and wasn't helped by a general lack of rhythm and cohesion, but as backline director he needed to take more control.
Pedantic referee Nigel Owens also didn't help proceedings. The Welshman had a significant influence in slowing the game to a snails pace at times.
In their 12th starting test together, even the connection with halves partner Aaron Smith - a bond that stretches right back to their Manawatu days - struggled to hit the mark.
While Cruden's clearances, goal-kicking and front-on defence was solid he lost the ball in contact once and took the wrong option when throwing an inside ball to Richie McCaw. The captain wasn't expecting the pass and spilt the ball to squander one of only two genuine try-scoring chances for the All Blacks in the first half.
It didn't get much better after the break, either. After a seething counter attacking incision by Israel Dagg, Cruden's pop pass from the ground thwarted another rare opportunity.
Hot-stepping second-five Kyle Eastmond beat him on the inside from broken play in the secondhalf - and despite McCaw pointing to the posts Cruden also took a questionable tap in the dying stages when a penalty would have broken the 15-all deadlock.
"It was gutsy and I ran like hell to keep up with him," Conrad Smith said of the quick tap. "It paid off for us. In hindsight we could have taken the kick but in the end we got the result."
Hansen backed the decision to push for the test's only try.
"Cruden did something different and that changed the game and as a result we managed to put enough pressure on to score a try," he said. "One person made a decision to change the game in a vital moment. That's what rugby is about, being brave enough to do that."
Last week, Hansen said Cruden was a player who needed game-time to find his grove. Beauden Barrett has been in sensational form for the Hurricanes this season, but even he dropped a simple pass after coming on for Dagg at fullback for the final 25 minutes.
A knee-jerk change is unlikely for the second test in Dunedin this week, but the discussion around whether Barrett should be given his first start at No.10 will only increase in the coming days.
Jerome Kaino will, comparatively, be relatively pleased with his efforts. Back on Eden Park in a black jersey for the first time since the World Cup final triumph almost three years ago, Kaino didn't quite live up to his "caged animal" tag. But, after missing the last 28 tests during a stint in Japan, did enough to prove it won't be long before he is again a regular starter.
Kaino will be dirty on himself for bobbling an Aaron Smith grubber. The big man just needed to bend his back a tad more and place the ball over the line for a certain try. That lack of finishing, in many ways, summed up the All Blacks' collectively frustrating evening.
On one occasion, though, Kaino left English tighthead prop David Wilson sucking in the big ones after a crunching spot tackle. He was also the first man to follow up a grubber kick and cut down wing Jonny May five metres out from the visitor's line.
As the match wore on Kaino became more prominent with ball in hand though he, too, had limited impact with seemingly constant handling errors blighting any momentum.