Aaron Cruden key to a Chiefs semifinal victory

EVAN PEGDEN
Last updated 05:01 26/07/2013
Aaron Cruden
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ
NO PRESSURE: If the Chiefs are to beat the Crusaders, Aaron Cruden must be firing.

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He will be the smallest man on the field in tomorrow night's Super Rugby semi-final in Hamilton but the Chiefs need Aaron Cruden to be the most influential if they are to succeed.

The defending champions go into the home knockout match against the in-form seven-time champion Crusaders at Waikato Stadium as underdogs.

The visitors not only have an all-All Black forward pack, plus national captain Richie McCaw on the reserve bench, but they also have last year's IRB player of the year, Dan Carter, behind them in the driving seat.

None of that, however, has dented the Chiefs' own self-belief and in Cruden they possess their own playmaker who is not only capable of putting his team in the right areas of the park, but also of creating try-scoring opportunites with his will-o'-the-wisp attacking genius.

It is easy to forget he is still only 24, but Cruden, at only 1.75 metres and 82kg, is the Chiefs' trump card and while he has battled to emerge from the shadow of the brilliant Carter he already has 22 test caps and is well used to being the test No 10 in Carter's absence.

The regard in which he is held within the Chiefs is obvious. He has already won not only the fans' player of the year award but also that of the coaches at the franchise awards night held a couple of weeks ago.

If he gets the front-foot ball any pivot needs to launch attacks effectively from his pack - and the looming colossal forward battle will play a key part in determining the outcome of this match - there is little doubt he is capable of producing a match-winning performance.

Cruden is clear what he has to do.

"[For me, what is important] I just think is doing my role. That's a major thing that we talk about in this team - if everyone does their own role then other guys aren't having to worry too much about helping someone else out.

"I know what I have to go out and do as a first-five, as a driver of the team, so if I'm able to do that and execute that accurately then hopefully it will go a long way towards getting us the positive result."

Conscious that teams like the Crusaders try to put teams under pressure by "squeezing" them down in their own territory, he said the Chiefs has to make sure that when it was on to move the ball they were alert to those opportunities but when the kick in behind backed by a strong defensive chase was the better option that also needed to be executed properly.

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So how much mental scarring, a knock to their confidence, came from the Crusaders' comprehensive 43-15 win against them in Christchurch earlier this month? According to Cruden they are certainly not dwelling on it, apart from taking some key lessons out of their lack of performance.

"Obviously the result was pretty disappointing for us and we're pretty keen to rectify that, but we can't dwell on things that happened a few weeks ago now.

"We've just got to get really excited about a challenge in front of us - a semifinal here at home at Waikato Stadium and I know the boys are really excited about that."

Cruden said they not only hadn't matched the Crusaders for intensity but had been "a little bit off" in all areas in that return round-robin clash, which had enabled their opponents to gather momentum that was then difficult to stop.

But they had addressed that in the last three weeks and were ready show the results tomorrow night.

"We've just got to make sure we really focus on getting our own game right. I think that's probably what we lacked a little bit a few weeks ago in Christchurch and they gave us a bit of a towelling.

"We really respect the Crusaders and we will show them respect, but at the same time we've got to go out there and make sure we fire a few shots and get our game going."

At this end of the season it is often more about getting the mental preparation right for the big knockout matches, but Cruden is quick to point out that there still needs to be a balance between that and doing everything possible to prepare physically at a time when bodies are sore and weary.

"It's just trying to find that combination of both. The physical prep is still really important, not only on the field but off it as well with the recovery, but also being prepared mentally.

"Just keep ticking things over in your head of scenarios or situations that might occur on the field and when they do hopefully we're prepared for them."

Despite the Chiefs going one better than last year and finishing top of the table after their 16-game regular season they still have not fully hit their best form for 80 minutes and that is another motivating factor for the home side in this semifinal.

"There is definitely that mentality but at the same time rugby is not a perfect game. You're always striving for perfection but I don't think you're ever going to quite reach it.

"There definitely has been a lot of positives throughout the season and we've played really well in patches, but at times we've let ourselves down as well with a little bit of execution or maybe just not playing at the right end of the field.

"You are always striving for that perfect game, but I don't think you'll ever reach it. As long as you keep striving, I think that's the main thing," Cruden said.

- Waikato Times

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