First five battle key to the Super Rugby semifinal
Spitting venom isn't Dan Carter's modus operandi but even he should take some pleasure if Aaron Cruden starts squirming tonight.
The paths of the two All Blacks first five-eighths' will collide in the Super semifinal at Waikato Stadium, amid an expectation their performances will heavily impact on who offers the commiseration handshakes at fulltime.
Cruden, 23, has the advantage of youth when his biography is stacked against the 30-year-old Carter's but the remainder makes for lopsided reading.
Having amassed 87 test caps to Cruden's 11, Carter has also participated in nine Super playoffs, won three titles and three runners-up medals.
Cruden's side of the ledger is considerably leaner.
This is his first Super finals appearance. He played 33 minutes of last year's World Cup final before succumbing to a knee injury.
Cruden also started last month's third test against Ireland and, before bowing to an Achilles tendon complaint in the 24th minute, had been involved in the opening four tries in Hamilton, including a dynamite offload to Sonny Bill Williams inside the Irish defensive wall and the final transfer to flanker Sam Cane.
Carter, who has made no decision whether he will repeat the 2009 strategy of skipping next year's Super campaign to go on a sabbatical, agreed his international team-mate could suffer if placed under pressure. Especially as the Chiefs playmaker is loath to rest back in the pocket, which would have a negative impact on his backline attack.
"You are not really worried about individual battles but if we can put him under pressure and take away his time, it will make it a lot tougher because a lot of their play does function around their 9, 10 and 12," Carter said.
"So it is key for us to make sure that we cut down his time and space so they can't function."
The loss of No 8 Kieran Read with his rib injury undoubtedly takes some sting out of the Crusaders' back row, even with Richie McCaw in scintillating form - something that should give Cruden comfort.
Despite his vast experience, Carter is not immune to misfiring in the finals.
During last year's 18-13 defeat in the final against the Queensland Reds, although he created his own try with an instinctive act of creativity he made several crucial, fundamental handling errors in Brisbane.
Recent form, however, suggests Carter is back near his five-star rating.
When the Crusaders beat the Chiefs 28-21 three weeks ago he successfully bagged Williams in defence.
The Crusaders are likely to again aim to nullify the big No 12's impact by kicking directly at him to bury him in rucks or rushing him to shut down his space.
Carter is still indisputably the All Blacks' top first-five by some distance, although Steve Hansen may consider giving Cruden a start against Argentina to further expose him at test level.
Increasing Cruden's value appears unlikely to concern Carter.
"When your opponents are playing well, and ‘Azza' has been playing extremely well this year, it just makes your work harder on your game," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Should there be golden point extra time in Super Rugby?Related story: (See story)