Aaron Cruden used to compare himself to Daniel Carter but as he matures as an All Black, the legendary first five-eighth's logical successor is very much his own man, and likes what he sees.
Initially considered a pale imitation of the international rugby's premier playmaker when Cruden made his test debut in 2010 - especially after a potentially career-ending Bledisloe Cup audition as Carter's deputy in Sydney that season - the 24 year-old has now established himself as a more than viable alternative.
Buoyed by his experience as a two-time Super Rugby winner at the Chiefs, Cruden enhanced his reputation further with a commanding performance during during the All Blacks 47-29 demolition of the Wallabies on Saturday night at the scene of a low point of his 23-test career.
Cruden played a pivotal role in Ben Smith's third minute scene setter; collected his own charge down for the All Blacks and consistently threatened the Wallabies defensive screen with darts and sleight of hand.
His also went agonisingly close to achieving a perfect eight from eight goal kicking record with the two misses hitting an upright.
The only concern was a bang to a knee that saw him retreat as a precaution inside the final 10 minutes.
Further assessment will be carried out today but the injury is not expected to prevent him guiding the All Black backline during Saturday's second trans-Tasman test in Wellington.
With Carter sidelined for a month with a calf tear, Cruden will be carefully monitored as an automatic choice in any All Black squad.
As the All Blacks moved a step closer to retaining the Bledisloe Cup it was inevitable Cruden would be asked to reflect on his previous game time at ANZ Stadium -- a torrid initiation mercifully ended by Graham Henry before the All Blacks recovered to post a one-point win.
"That was a pretty tough challenge for me. I think it's made me a better player," he said when dwelling on his first start for the All Blacks.
"Everyone experiences difficult times, it was a pretty difficult time for me personally but I was able to bounce back."
Cruden was "pretty pleased" with his contribution to a six-try rout on Saturday night though deflected praise to those who supplied his front foot ball
"I felt comfortable out there, it was nice to put in a quality performance.
"Leading in I was pretty nervous, we've got a pretty good first five injured back home. I just wanted to nail my role and I think I was able to do that."
It helped that substituting for Carter is no longer the ominous assignment it was when the diminutive cancer survivor was first trialled as the superstar's back-up.
"When I first came into the side it was pretty overwhelming. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, people expected me to be like Dan Carter.
"Over the last few years I've come to realise that I'm not going to be Dan Carter. I just want to be out there be Aaron Cruden and just play to my strengths."
All Blacks assistant coach and former Waikato first five-eighth Ian Foster agreed Cruden no longer suffered from an inferiority complex.
"He's certainly grown into the ownership of this team.
"I think in the past he's come in and perhaps felt like he's been second best whereas now he's come and actually put his mark on the team."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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