Aaron Cruden now at ease with All Blacks role
It's water off a duck's back for Aaron Cruden now. Dan Carter goes down, he steps up and history suggests the All Blacks don't miss a beat.
In fact, the prospect of stepping into Carter's boots for a big-time test has now become more the rule than the exception for the 25-year-old first five-eighths from Manawatu and the Chiefs.
Cruden has started 10 of the All Blacks' last 17 test victories in a row - almost exclusively while Carter has been hobbled - and the prospect of slotting in for the shot at what would be a record 18th in Sydney next Saturday night doesn't so much intimidate as it does invigorate.
"I'm really excited about it," Cruden said yesterday in Auckland ahead of the hitout against North Harbour and Northland. "I watched the Super Rugby final, and when he went down I was gutted for him - especially the way he's been able to come back after that Achilles injury last year.
"But for me it presents another opportunity and it's something I'm really keen to grab with both hands and really run with it."
That's Cruden for you. Buoyant, bubbly and just a little bodacious, he never lacks for confidence when given a shot. And with Carter's brittle body these days, that's become an increasingly regular occurrence.
Cruden started seven of his nine tests last year and five of his 11 in 2012. He knows exactly what he's in for next Saturday night at ANZ Stadium, and he can't wait for it to roll around.
"It's just going out there and being Aaron Cruden," he said of the formula required. "It's not trying to be anyone else. I've just got to play my natural game and be comfortable in my own skin and I think I've been growing in that role over the last few years."
Now, after Carter suffered a cracked bone in his leg in last Saturday's Super Rugby final, Steve Hansen's decision to give Cruden all three test starts in June against England is looking an inspired one.
Coming off his own injury (a broken thumb), Cruden needed all three of those internationals to find his best form, and the confidence that goes with it. But by series end we had the little playmaker back to his ebullient best.
He will need to be right there again next Saturday night against a Wallabies outfit on a roll themselves (they've won their last seven tests) and dangerously high on confidence on the back of that and the Waratahs' triumph over the Crusaders.
"They've always had it in them, now they're sort of starting to understand the peak of their powers," Cruden said. "Throughout Super Rugby their teams were extremely competitive and pretty difficult to play. For us it's making sure we respect our opponents and prepare the way we know we can."
Hansen yesterday confirmed 110-test loosehead prop Tony Woodcock was done for the year (he's having shoulder surgery) and that backup lock Dominic Bird was out for three weeks with turf toe (replaced by Wellington's Jeremy Thrush). On the positive side, Crusaders props Wyatt Crockett (knee) and Joe Moody (head) were both expected to be fully fit for Sydney.
The coach also made it clear the All Blacks won't be hiding from the stakes of this Bledisloe and Rugby Championship opener - a world record 18th consecutive test victory beckons.
"We definitely talk about it because it's a reality," Hansen said. "If we don't talk about it, everyone else is going to tell us about it. But we need to make sure we aren't sidetracked by it. When you win that's the outcome of a positive week with your preparation. If we do that we know we've got some talent in this group that's hard to beat."
But, as Hansen wryly noted, next week's opponents have a dangerous buoyancy about them. "The Australians have never been shy on confidence. They're telling us they've improved, and we're working hard at trying to improve ourselves, so it should be a good contest."
One Aaron Cruden wouldn't miss for quids.
What result and margin are you tipping for Sunday's test?