First-five Cruden's 'mental mind shift' pays off
By his own admission Aaron Cruden was initially well short of his best for the All Blacks this month.
Understandable, really, having been thrust into such a pivotal role on the back of one-and-a-half games for the Chiefs.
On reflection Cruden admits he didn't back himself enough after returning from a broken thumb.
Last week he made a conscious adjustment.
No more hesitation, and results were immediately revealing.
In Hamilton, during the All Blacks' 36-13 win against England, the backline general was back.
''I had a mental mind shift,'' he said. ''I was probably playing within myself a little bit in the first two tests. I wanted to back my natural ability and be really instinctive last night [Saturday] and I thought it showed in my performance.
''Looking back and reflecting I'm not too sure [why]. Being out for a few weeks and only having a couple of runs for the Chiefs. I don't want to use it as an excuse but it took a little while to find my feet. At test match level you can't do that. You always want it to happen straight away but it doesn't at times.''
Cruden orchestrated the All Blacks' first half blitz - causing havoc for the problematic English midfield - before being replaced by Beauden Barrett just after halftime.
It was a performance which repaid the faith and went some way to justifying the decision to persist with Cruden, rather than give Barrett his first test start at No 10.
''I'm definitely happy,'' Cruden said of his efforts with a husky voice that hinted some well-deserved celebrations had been enjoyed.
''It's always exciting to play on your home pitch. I would have loved to have got a few more minutes but the coaches thought it was best to give Beauden a fair bit of game time and I thought he performed really well.''
Cruden's return to form sets up an intriguing predicament for the All Blacks around their first five-eighth make-up.
After two stints with his local Christchurch club, Southbridge, Dan Carter is expected to continue his comeback with the Crusaders in Wellington this weekend.
''He seems to be enjoying his club rugby at Southbridge,'' All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said.
''We've been monitoring him; he's been popping in every now and then for rehab. The signs are looking very good. He's got a few more hurdles to climb in terms of minutes.''
In hindsight, Cruden's slow start against the English may suggest it's better to back the form contender to start in a test.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has also consistently stated Barrett provides more impact from the bench than Cruden.
How that dictates which two 10s are selected for the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney in six weeks is sure to create debate.
Super Rugby form will be taken into account, but Hansen's loyalty to his incumbents is likely to see Carter preferred. That stance will, however, be tested by Carter's ability to make a smooth return.
Individual match-ups over the coming weeks in New Zealand Super Rugby derbies suddenly take on greater importance with starting spots up for grabs.