Cruden presents All Blacks challenge to Carter
Like pretty much everyone in New Zealand rugby, I'm a huge Dan Carter fan. But it would now appear the time has come that the world's best No10 is finally looking over his shoulder.
For me the best All Black on the park on Saturday night in Hamilton without a shadow of a doubt was Aaron Cruden, even though he was only on for a little over a quarter of the match. If I was Carter I wouldn't be sitting easily after watching that.
Cruden was that good. He was doing things that even Carter can't do at the moment and I'm sure that will have given the selectors something to think about as the Irish were swept in record-breaking fashion.
Might they now be pondering the possibility of playing Cruden and Carter together? Not that we really need another No12 in the mix given the situation we now have between Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu, which I'll come to next.
But why would you not want to have Cruden out there now, if he's fit? The way he's playing he's almost wasted on the bench.
It's clear Cruden's game has come of age. A couple of years ago we could see the potential, but his goalkicking was at best average. It's now extremely accurate. His kicking out of hand was at times inaccurate. Not any more. We all knew he didn't lack courage on defence but he did fall off the odd tackle. That seems to have been rectified.
Maybe he hasn't been truly tested against the big powerful ball-runners, but in everything else he ticks all the boxes. I believe he's even got the talent to do some things Carter can't. He possibly engages players better, and his ability to get offloads away has to be a skill the All Blacks want in their makeup.
It's clear he's become a selection alternative to Carter who may be the best player in the world in his position, but now has someone there who potentially could rival him in the future, if not sooner.
Not that we should be surprised. New Zealand rugby over the last 20 years has produced No10s who become the best in the world with different skill sets. This kid is going to be the same and I love the way he plays.
This isn't to suggest Carter is out of form. In fact he is back on top of his game and still is, as we saw in the last couple weeks, a matchwinner. It's just that Cruden has improved to a point where he's now a world-class player and if Carter doesn't consistently perform, unlikely as it may seem, Cruden would deserve a chance.
There was a time when no-one could replace Carter. Unfortunately for him that time is over and he, more than anyone, will be aware of that. Who knows, this could be a good thing for Carter. It is a very good thing for the All Blacks.
Ma'a Nonu may be under even more of a threat for his position given the way Sonny Bill played throughout the Irish series, and in particular in Hamilton.
What I saw from Sonny Bill on Saturday night made it clear his learning days are over in rugby. He's all grown-up. He is now making sensible decisions on when to offload, when to carry, when to reset for second phase and when to just catch and pass.
He's making good decisions around his kicking too, and defensively he's in the system – working well with Cruden and the rock of the backline, Conrad Smith, and not racing out of the line and missing tackles.
He now knows the game and he's reached a point where other people could learn off him.
I would suggest Williams' form leaves Nonu in a pretty precarious position. He hasn't been required by the All Blacks and now goes back to the struggling Blues. Why haven't they given him an opportunity in the Steinlager Series? Either they've already decided on Sonny Bill and they want to give him as much time as possibly, or they simply know what they're going to get from Nonu.
Young openside flanker Sam Cane was the other standout individual in Hamilton and he reminds me of a young Michael Jones. When there was a break or something happening he was never far away, and that's a seven recognising situations happening on the field and taking those opportunities.