Sitting on the bench for the final quarter of yesterday's triumph at Ellis Park was not where Aaron Cruden wanted to be.
The All Blacks first five-eighth was sporting scars on his face today after his gallant defensive efforts against the Springboks in their epic Rugby Championship final early yesterday.
Countless times he put his body on the line to stop the likes of powerhouse Springboks hooker Bismarck du Plessis coming through the inside channel. Cruden did not shy away, but eventually he succumbed after taking another knock to his dodgy knee.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was confident the Chiefs playmaker would recover in time for next week's final Bledisloe Cup test in Dunedin, but Cruden was gutted to leave the field.
"The knee is all right," Cruden said later.
"It's responded pretty well over the last 24 hours, but it was pretty frustrating. You get the opportunity to start a test like that and only being able to last 60-odd minutes was pretty frustrating."
Competition for the No 10 jersey has been intense all year and after another standout cameo from the bench, Beauden Barrett again pushed his case for a start.
Over the last two weeks Cruden hasn't showed the same form he displayed while guiding the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Rugby titles.
The lingering affects of the knee injury may have hampered his progress, but he will be slightly nervous leading into the Wallabies assignment.
"I thought Beauden stepped up really well," Cruden said.
"The game was in the balance there. The way he responded after missing Jean de Villiers, and being able to take the game by the scruff of the neck... he was outstanding. It was disappointing for myself, but great to see him do his thing.
"It keeps you on your toes. That's why I'm frustrated. You get an opportunity and you don't want to let another guy get a crack, especially when Beauden performs like he did last night. The competition is really strong, especially at first-five.
"I was really stoked for him to personally perform the way he did."
It took some time to sink in and for energy levels to replenish, but the morning after their absorbing win, the All Blacks were beginning to realise the magnitude of just their fourth victory at Ellis Park to go with those in 1997, '92 and '28.
"That's a massive achievement and all the boys once they heard that, were pretty satisfied. We all sat back and went 'wow'," Cruden said.
It's not often this team gets a week off to savour their success. No-one will begrudge them the chance to indulge after pulling off one of the All Blacks' greatest wins.Once back at the team hotel celebrations and singing went long into the night, and the All Blacks sported husky voices and looked dusty in the morning.
"They weren't noisy in the changing shed," Hansen said.
"They were absolutely buggered, but as the night wore on they certainly got their voices and started singing and had a good night, and deservedly so.
"There's not a game the following week so it was a big one. You don't get too many times to step off the ferris wheel and take a breather. With the week off it allowed us to have a couple of quiet ones."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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