Test rugby: blink and you can miss a major moment. Sometimes, in the direst of circumstances you can miss a career.
On Saturday, as the Wallabies were choking on the spoon their medicine had been served with – at 51-20 in Eden Park against the All Blacks, that dose of medicine doesn’t much nippier – one of their players was helped off. Pat McCabe, who had twice suffered a fractured neck before, damaged it again. This third fracture would be the one that ended his career. At the age of 26.
For All Blacks stand-off Aaron Cruden, who orchestrated the Wallabies’ rugby downfall, it came as a shock.
“I wasn’t aware of Pat’s injury during the game,” Cruden tells Rugby World, “but I saw him afterwards. I headed into the physio’s area to get my pectoral (sic) checked out, and Pat was there with a neck brace on. I asked him how he was and he said he was ‘hoping to be just fine.’ Then, it turns out he cannot play.
“It doesn’t get much more physical that a (Bledisloe) Test. It’s like that in the heat of the moment, but you never wish injuries like that on any opponent. For Pat it was just one of those things, and he won’t want it to be, even if he lost. But he can walk away, which is the important thing.”
For Cruden, talking on behalf of AIG who have launched a safety campaign to educate clubs and grass-roots level players, it is a particularly poignant issue. Things have come a long way in a short space of time with on-field safety, he says, but international players are beholden to spread a message of safety. The fly-half tells of passing on “good habits”, in terms of learning proper technique and using the right equipment. He also is saddened by those trying to tear down the game, rather than focusing on improving standards.
In the May edition of Rugby World, the Rugby Rant was about professor Allyson Pollock, from Queen Mary University of London, calling for a ban of the sport. Despite McCabe’s extreme misfortune, Cruden isn’t convinced.
“It can be difficult to hear people like that on the sport that I love,” the Waikato Chief says, “but you cannot please everyone. The important thing is to educate parents and young players and to take safety forward.”
Of course, before McCabe left the game, there was plenty of inspiration on display for those fond of a comeback tale. The Wallaby winger had recovered from two neck fractures, his team-mate Nathan Charles is playing Test union despite living with Cystic Fibrosis and Cruden himself has famously recovered since suffering from testicular cancer at the age of 19.
Cruden agrees that there was plenty to admire there. “I think it is special to see these guys play. Life throws up a lot of challenges and you are defined by how you respond. That’s especially true of rugby. It’s a sport we all truly love and you have to make the most of it while it lasts. You’ve got to do what you can when you get that chance.”
In rugby terms Cruden is particularly pleased with how his game has improved since he last spoke to Rugby World, just before the All Black’s first summer Test against England. Then, he felt he had a lot to prove to himself after sloppy Super Rugby performances and breaking his thumb. By the time he was masterminding a heavy Bledisloe win, he had played into form.
He is also pleased with how he and close friend Aaron Smith are growing as a half-back pairing. After getting a ‘boot up the backside’ before the second Rugby Championship Test, they upped their work-rate, went on the attack and shone. Keeping Australia‘s playmaker Kurtley Beale quite by shutting him down definitely pleased him – though obviously he did so with the help of a voracious back-row unit.
Certainly Beale has extreme talent and you cannot keep him too quiet for too long, as evidenced when the Waratah popped up to flick a “little, sneaky inside ball to Izzy Folau to score.” However, Cruden passed that Test. Now his sights are on Argentina’s No 10.
“From the few games I’ve seen from Nicolas Sanchez, he has been fantastic. He brings natural flair, in unpredictable, adds balance to their team and, like me, he’s not afraid to attack the line even if he’s not the biggest guy.
“It does seem bizarre that he is not attached to any team, considering he is Argentina’s leading No 10. You’d think they would want him to find his timing before a World Cup campaign. But then again, look at his last two results – he’s clearly doing something right!”
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Aaron Cruden was speaking at the launch of the AIG Rugby Safety Awards, a global campaign to tackle safety in rugby. Watch the video or visit www.aig.com/saferugby to find out how you could win equipment for your club.