Cruden plays second string to puppet master
Aaron Cruden's test claims won't be much clearer after he plays Italy in Rome tomorrow.
It's not a slight on the Chiefs first five-eighth, but after his fifth test start he'll return to the bench in Cardiff and hand the reins to Dan Carter. That seems as certain as a 12th victory over the Azzurri at Stadio Olimpico.
Some argue Carter's influence on the All Blacks' game is greater than Richie McCaw's - the rationale being that Carter has the ability to both win and lose a match. Last week's victory at Murrayfield emphasised his status as the world's premier No 10.
This week, Cruden again faces the unenviable task of playing in Carter's shadow.
"I try to go out there and put my spin on it," Cruden said. "Dan has been the benchmark for a few years. We're totally different players.
"He had a fantastic start to the tour last week."
The problem is that Cruden can't build momentum in the black jersey.
Carter is the puppet master and his understudy rarely gets a chance to pull the strings.
Unless Carter suffers another long-term injury, there is no chance Cruden will be given enough consecutive starts to grow his game.
In last year's dominant World Cup semifinal victory over Australia, he was composed beyond his years. This season he played no small part in the Chiefs' first Super Rugby title.
And against Ireland in June, he produced a 25-minute masterclass before being injured.
On his day, Cruden's elusive pace and ability to take on the line can get the All Blacks' machine humming in the same fashion as Carter.
It may not be a stretch to suggest Carter admired Cruden's running game this year and realised he needed to bring his own back.
But it took only two scratchy starts against the Pumas and Springboks for doubts to emerge about Cruden's ability to take control of tight tests. There were even premature suggestions Beauden Barrett would soon surpass him in the pecking order.
Cruden could be forgiven for feeling his 18th test is another deja vu trial.
"To come in and command and be the voice doesn't come naturally to rookie players," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. "From what I've seen this week Aaron's learnt he needs to be the boss. He's stepped up really well and I'm sure that will go into his game."
The 23-year-old is conscious he needs to take control and is relishing the prospect of unleashing Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea and Hosea Gear.
Aaron Smith provides a familiar face in the reunited Manawatu halves pairing, but he, too, will be a tad edgy.
Piri Weepu applied the pressure with his best performance of the year against Scotland, placing heat on Smith to regain his zip after a rare poor outing in the Brisbane draw.
Tomorrow's test might well be another ugly grinding effort.
The Azzurri have made eight changes to the team which scraped past Tonga last week, and the referee is pedantic Irishman Alain Rolland, who averages 20.7 penalties (one every 1:37 minute) per game.
The Italians' love affair with scrums will continue and their spoiling tactics are effective.
That might initially make life difficult for Smith and Cruden to shine, but even with 14 starting changes the All Blacks should improve on their previous effort against Italy, a 14-point margin. Fairfax NZ
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