It was the biggest kick of Aaron Cruden's young rugby life and boy was he happy to get a second go.
The 24-year-old Chiefs playmaker was the hero for the All Blacks as he - eventually - landed the match-winning conversion from near the left touchline to write the 2013 All Blacks into history.
Yesterday's 24-22 victory over Ireland, sealed by Cruden's cool conversion, completed the perfect season and denied the plucky Irish an historic upset over the All Blacks.
But Cruden thought he'd originally fluffed his big moment.
"I suppose I was lucky the second one went through the posts," he said. "The first one, I thought I hit it pretty well but it sort of drifted to the right." But referee Nigel Owens correctly ruled that several Irish defenders had started their charge-down attempt too soon, and Cruden was handed a rare chance to rewrite history.
"I just wanted to stay in the process, stay focused, get into my rhythm as a kicker and try and strike the ball," he reflected. "I was pretty happy to see the flags go up from the touch-judges."
No 8 Kieran Read said Cruden must have "ice-water" in his veins, but the young man who's fast proving himself a legitimate alternative to Dan Carter was a reluctant hero.
"I don't think it comes down to the kick," he said. "With 30 seconds to go we were able to get a penalty, which was crucial, and the boys went quickly. We just stayed to our game-plan, identified space down that left side and got over in the corner. There was a lot of work done previous to the kick that helped us get into the history books."
It wasn't lost on Cruden, either, that he found himself in a remarkably similar position to Kiwis hero Shaun Johnson who also landed a match-winning conversion in Saturday's dramatic semifinal of the league World Cup against England.
"I saw it," said the diminutive playmaker with the burgeoning reputation. "Watching that yesterday was pretty special. I'm a big league fan, enjoy watching the game, and it was great that the Kiwis were able to get over the line as well."
Cruden credited the "ticker" of his team on an afternoon where the Irish asked some pretty testing questions.
"They outplayed us for 70 minutes. We wanted to put in a quality performance to finish the tour and that probably wasn't it. But the character of this team is evident. We were able to show the heart that lives under the silver fern on the black jersey."
Cruden revealed "mixed emotions" in the dressing room.
"We're stoked to go undefeated. We have a lot of self-belief and we just knew if we were able to hang in the fight, the momentum would turn. But it took a long time to wrestle it off the Irish. They beat us to the punch for a lot of that game."
Despite feeling immensely proud, Cruden also offered a chilling reflection of life in the team everyone measures themselves against.
"There's always more to come, but as you can see a lot of teams are starting to up their game as well, and starting to figure out what we're trying to do. We have to keep striving for excellence and perfection."
Cruden needs to stay ready. With a strong possibility Carter may need surgery on his Achilles tendon (he'll have scans when he returns to Christchurch), he's likely to have a few more big kicks coming his way next June and beyond.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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