Over an hour after the Chiefs had clinched their historic first Super Rugby title, linchpin Aaron Cruden was still finding it all quite surreal.
But there was nothing surreal about the little first-five's part in this breakthrough season by the men in red, yellow and black.
Dan Carter's understudy for the All Blacks' No 10 jersey, Cruden followed his Manawatu coach Dave Rennie to the Chiefs in search of boosting his career and he did just that after a frustrating time previously with the Hurricanes.
He might be the smallest man in the squad at 84kg and 1.78m but his durability, courage and fortitude was unquestioned in starting all 18 matches for the Chiefs this year, 14 of which were victories, and playing almost every minute.
Add to that his sublime skills and pinpoint goal-kicking, which made him the most prolific New Zealand points scorer in Super Rugby history, and you can not only understand why Rennie pushed so hard to acquire his services last year, but also only wonder what might still be to come in the young man's career.
At 23, Cruden is really only just setting out on that career and the Chiefs and All Blacks can expect a lot more in the future.
“I don't think it's fully sunk in yet, but over the next few days when we're by ourselves a little bit we'll really sit back and realise what we've accomplished this year,” Cruden said.
“It's just a lot of hard work that started back in November. The boys have been keen from the get-go so it's great to see all that hard work pay off.”
Cruden, who reached 251 points for the season during the final to put him well ahead of Carter's New Zealand record for the Crusaders and just 12 behind Morne Steyn's all-time record of 263 for the Bulls, could never have expected the success to come quite so quickly at his new franchise.
“You never know what's going to happen coming to a new franchise, for me especially and a lot of other new faces in the changing room as well, but we knew we had the quality in this group to do what we did tonight. We set high goals at the start of the season and we've ticked them all off along the way."
It is fairly typical of this team that the team ethic is foremost in all the players' minds and Cruden was reluctant to push his own case too strongly.
But he did admit the move to the Chiefs had been a good one for him personally but said it was perhaps a little early to say if it had been the making of him.
“I guess so, I suppose the next couple of years will really show that, but I'm really happy with how my game is progressing.
"I took a chance moving franchises and I think it's really paid off for my game.
“I've been really comfortable with the systems that we're running up here and the boys have welcomed me with open arms and just given me the confidence and the licence to go out there and try and contribute to the team, which I've been really enjoying.”
Cruden's kicking game in the end was just as crucial as his running and passing in the wet at Waikato Stadium on Saturday night as the Chiefs increasingly sought to turn the tiring Sharks around with a variety of kicks behind them for the chasers to run on to and create pressure on the visitors who made mistakes as a result.
“We knew it was going to be a little bit wet leading into this game and while our natural instincts are probably to shift the ball and keep it in hand, we knew that if we put the ball in behind them, the way their defensive structures are, we would be able to find a bit of space,” he said.
Cruden said the Chiefs knew they had one last big performance in them after a long season and with the Sharks on the end of a gruelling travel schedule to get to the final after only qualifying sixth for the playoffs.
So is this just the start for the Chiefs?
“I'd like to think so.
"We've got a few guys moving on but the core of the group are sticking together, we've done fantastically well this season, but I do think this is just the start and while we can be proud of what we've achieved we've got a lot more to give as well,” he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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