Cruden ready for Sydney clash
Aaron Cruden (Getty Images)
Wellington - The last time Aaron Cruden started a Test match for New Zealand in Sydney, the then-21-year-old nervously bumbled his way through 60 minutes that sent him straight into the international wilderness.
Cruden was taken off for the final quarter of that 2010 match against Australia after a Kurtley Beale penalty gave the hosts a 13-point lead.
His replacement at flyhalf, Colin Slade, came on to be part of a famous victory as the All Blacks' experienced campaigners regrouped and battled back to win 23-22.
Cruden, a 24-year-old testicular cancer survivor, will re-assume the flyhalf position against the Wallabies on Saturday for New Zealand's opening match of their Rugby Championship title defence, but has little fear of returning to Olympic Stadium, the venue of his meltdown.
"No, not at all," he replied emphatically when asked whether he had demons to exorcise.
"A couple of years ago ... I was really nervous.
"I probably didn't play my natural game and felt that I had to change my game coming into the highest level of New Zealand rugby.
"I am comfortable in the environment now.
"I just need to get out there and play my natural game, boss the big boys around and take the ball to the line and be a bit of a threat as well."
Anointed Daniel Carter's successor in 2010, Cruden's previous game in Sydney was his sixth Test, but first in the starting 15.
With New Zealand's talismanic flyhalf sidelined by injury, Cruden was handed his chance after the All Blacks had already sealed the Tri-Nations title and trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup.
The stuttering performance almost ended his international career.
Cruden was overlooked for the All Blacks' season-ending northern hemisphere tour and at the following year's World Cup, was photographed sitting in the stands at Wellington Regional Stadium, drinking a few beers while taking in a pool match.
However, injury struck Carter again, and Cruden, who had been planning a trip to Disneyland, was brought back onto the game's biggest stage where he refused to blow his lines again.
Slade, Carter's backup at the World Cup, suffered a groin injury and Cruden found himself thrust into the starting side for the semi-final against Australia.
Cruden won plaudits for his composed performance in the All Blacks' emphatic win over their neighbours and retained the number 10 shirt for the final against France.
A knee injury sidelined him late in the first half, but replacement Stephen Donald wrote himself into sporting folklore by kicking the match-winning penalty.
Cruden has since developed into a top-shelf flyhalf, and the loss of Carter for up to a month of this year's Rugby Championship barely caused a ripple in New Zealand when the 31-year-old's calf injury was announced this week.
"It's really disappointing for Dan with another injury but for me it's another opportunity and I have to utilise the week as best I can," Cruden said.
Cruden's maturity has been evident in his performances with the Waikato Chiefs, who successfully defended their Super Rugby title this year, and in the June tests against France, where he started in two matches and impressed with his game management.
"The last couple of years have shown me that I can just get out there and do my thing," Cruden said.
"I was picked for a reason, for the way that I play and if I change that I probably wasn't doing myself or the jersey, justice."
With Carter set to take a six-month sabbatical after the season-ending northern hemisphere tour, Cruden will have more chances to stake his claim at flyhalf, with the up-and-coming Beauden Barrett likely to deputise.
"It's not like we have a green, wet-behind-the-ears five-eighth (flyhalf) coming into the team," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of Cruden's starting role on Saturday.
"We have got a world class five-eighth coming in and he has fitted in seamlessly.
"He's part of the leadership group, he has played well and I'm just expecting him to carry that on and drive the team around the park."