As the All Blacks announced their team for the first Test against England this Saturday, head coach Steve Hansen was all at once relaxed, droll and positive. Beside him sat a young fly-half who had been picked to play opposite Freddie Burns having so far had an up-and-down season himself.
Then Hansen referred to Aaron Cruden as being back to his “cheeky self”.
“Oh no!”, the thought must have been going through some English onlookers’ minds. We may have been expecting Cruden-lite, a paler version of the talented footballer, but now the first five-eighth was being touted as chipper. This may not bode well for those hoping for English victory, if the host’s fly-half was so confident and so on fire in training that he has been ripping into the head coach before a team is even selected.
“Oh no, there’s nothing like that!” Cruden tells Rugby World on the eve of the opening Test in the three-showdown series. “There’s a great buzz around the team for the first Test and everyone is feeding off each other’s enthusiasm – it’s a big challenge for the whole team. I think Steve was more referring to my switching hats from the Chiefs to the All Blacks. My form for the Chiefs this season has not been as good as I’d like so to come from Super Rugby to internationals means a different environment. You’re always stoked to hear your name being called out to play and I’m just excited for the opportunity to rip into it.”
Whether it is kidology from Hansen or Cruden is just an effervescent presence in the All Black squad, the inherent issue is that Cruden has a point to prove.
Rarely do you hear a three-part list from a coach about why he is picking a player while the player himself listens in with the journos. Cruden’s the incumbent. Check. A better starter than impact sub. Check. He’s played some rugby. Check.
Okay, Hansen also throws in some happiness-grenades praising Cruden’s comfort in a leadership role, his ability to read a game and to organise, but it is the selection itself that is significant. Words, after all, just tumble out in Test week.
Cruden himself brushes off the talk of some Kiwi players not being able to name their opposition as a storm in a teacup – “the media are always trying to find different angles” – before hammering home the point that this Test, indeed any Test, is all about doing the simple things with a little All Black sheen on it.
“There’s not a lot of rustiness but it does take a little while to adjust to Test rugby again. The coaches have been mindful of that and clarity has been getting thrown at the boys. We know England will bring it. So we’ve had a lot of content thrown at us and we need to tidy it up.
“Everything is about clarity so we can play the game we want to play. There will be times when we won’t be perfect but we have to be positive. It helps, our ability to adjust on the pitch. Because you can prepare for the whole week but if the team opposite you is showing different pictures and you don’t adjust then you can go 80 minutes without firing a shot.”
At once Cruden is giving a glimpse into something that makes the All Blacks scary to everyone else: there is meticulous planning before a match, but the team has the skills and the adventure to throw away the manual and build something else from scratch.
Which actually brings us back to the point he dismissed earlier, about not being able to name England players. Because Cruden can. Because Cruden has done his (and some others’) homework.
With gusto he shows the depth of his appreciation for Saturday’s opponents.
“Steve said it yesterday; England is the team in the last 18 months that has come on the most. They have more running, more style. They have X Factor players and gone are the days when it was all about the forwards because they have backs who can burn you.
“Look at the Six Nations form of Mike Brown, who was absolutely outstanding. They have Manu Tuilagi, and although he isn’t playing this weekend, Luther Burrell has done really well in the centre. And there is a nuggetty No 9 in Danny Care who gets them going and needs someone to mark him.”
Now, Cruden acknowledges that Care may not make it, such is the worry over a shoulder problem that he may be replaced the night before the Test, but this is the All Blacks who can adjust, remember? They have the talent to study another player in a short space of time.
However, while Cruden has been deeply praising his nemeses and his coach own has to be evangelical about why the Chief starts ahead of Beauden Barrett, does he feel maybe, by some iota, he is another X Factor player himself?
“I dunno,” he laughs. “You always hope so. Maybe I have a little bit of X Factor in my game, but it is about having knowledge of your core roles and making the right decisions and maybe being able to play a little bit of my own game…”
He tails off. Perhaps it is because the ‘bone deep’ ethos behind the All Blacks is laying it on for others. Earlier in the day Aaron Smith, Cruden’s scrum-half deputy and childhood team-mate, was merrily explaining about how he must work with his pal to supply everyone else. He is subservient to his “general” Cruden, who in turn is all about his mates.
The mindset of Cruden may just be humility, but it may also be representative of the tiny pieces that make the big All Black picture. Either way, if Cruden lays it on for his pals who all play some ‘cheeky’ rugby, England’s 18-month improvement will mean very little.
When have you ever seen a team win at Eden Park when New Zealand and their fly-half are in the mood to party?
Aaron Cruden was speaking on behalf of AIG, the official insurance partner of New Zealand Rugby. Join the conversation @AIGRugby