Aaron Cruden faces true test of character

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 10/09/2012
Aaron Cruden
CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ
COMBINATIONS: Aaron Cruden was one of six changes to the All Blacks side.

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Aaron Cruden faces a mental test in Dunedin this week where he must quickly forget his Wellington wobbles and refocus on the Springboks.

With Dan Carter labelled damaged goods for another week, it will again fall to the Manawatu pivot to put the polish on the All Blacks' erratic attack.

Cruden's first task will be analysing Saturday's 21-5 win over Argentina, and it won't make particularly pleasant viewing.

Coach Steve Hansen didn't mince his words yesterday in describing his pivot's first half as "average" before listing control, consistency and decision-making as work-ons for his nine and ten.

And Cruden was just as harsh, saying that he had failed to turn the Pumas around with his kicking game and had gone wide too early and too often.

He said he had taken too long to adjust to Argentina's clever sliding defence.

"Argentina look very tight like they are giving you the space out wide, but they scramble very well," he said. "They know what their defensive system is and they push up and out and pretty much take you to the sideline.

"I don't think we did enough to go through them before maybe moving the ball wide."

So while the medicos work on Carter's troublesome calf, Hansen and Carter, who will stay with the squad, would do well to turn their attention to Cruden's top two inches. The 23-year-old is an eternally optimistic type, not easily knocked, but Hansen might do well to take him aside all the same.

Cruden's Super Rugby heroics and his brilliant Hamilton cameo against Ireland are becoming old news, and he could do with a reboot.

His coach could point out the conditions at Westpac Stadium were atrocious by anyone's standards and that, with nine minutes of game time in a month, rust was understandable.

He could reinforce the fact that Ma'a Nonu is slowly coming back to his game and that Conrad Smith will be another week fitter.

A few clips of Cruden's long pass to Cory Jane for his second-half try won't go amiss either.

There is less ammo for halfback Aaron Smith who will come under some pressure, judging by Hansen's comments.

Smith kicked well, but was targeted by the Pumas and struggled for the first time in his five-test career to whip the ball away from contact.

“He got caught once with a guy going through the middle and certainly didn't have any protection at that point, but he has to learn that sometimes he might have to dive pass in those conditions," Hansen said.

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"That's not something he's ever had to do. If you think back to Super Rugby, he got caught a few times in similar situations and it's something he has to add to his game."

There may be some temptation to start Piri Weepu, who was polished and assured in closing out the match against Argentina.

His style is suited to South Africa's physicality, but Forsyth Barr Stadium is a place that Smith knows well after a season with the Highlanders.

It would seem to be a big call to drop him on the back of one wet night in the capital, and Australia proved in Perth during their 26-19 win that South Africa remain vulnerable to a fast-paced game.

- Wellington

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