Cruden fulfills boyhood dream
Auckland - In barefoot, backyard games of rugby with neighbours and friends, Aaron Cruden rehearsed the moves that might wow a Rugby World Cup final crowd, imagined their cheers of appreciation and the warm glow of victory.
On Sunday, after a remarkably short space of time and by a route strewn with pitfalls never conceived in those boyhood dreams, the 22-year-old Cruden will run onto Eden Park in the All Blacks' No 10 jersey, in a match which may see the end of the New Zealand's barren World Cup years which began before he was born.
"I think every kid (dreamed of winning the World Cup) and if they say they didn't then they're lying," Cruden said. "I was out there practicing, maybe kicking the winning goal or scoring the winning try and those are just things you look back on now and think 'oh wow.' I've got the opportunity to play in a Rugby World Cup final so it's pretty special."
Cruden was born in 1989, two years after New Zealand beat France 29-9 on Eden Park in the final of the first World Cup to claim the Webb Ellis Cup which, through five world tournaments since, has remained painfully elusive to All Blacks teams.
"I've seen the highlights of that game," he said. "It's pretty special and hopefully it will be the same on Saturday night with New Zealand raising the World Cup."
Asked if he was surprised no New Zealand team had won the World Cup in his lifetime, Cruden said "Not really, no."
"I suppose hopefully that can change on Sunday. That's definitely what we're aiming for."
When Cruden wove childhood fantasy of World Cup glory, he couldn't have imagined that the real story would be far more rich and poignant, would contain more twists and frights than most fairytales.
To reach the World Cup final he not only had to reach the peak of his sport - a long and trying journey on its own - but had to overcome grievous health problems, fluctuating form and his initial non-selection in New Zealand's World Cup squad.
After a battle with tuberculosis in his teens and when his career as a first class rugby player was just beginning, Cruden was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 19. He underwent surgery, and then had to undergo two months of chemotherapy.
In a 2008 interview, Cruden said "you never expect to hear you have cancer at the age of 19."
"That was a big shock ... my life was just beginning, my rugby was just starting to go well."
After an intense and debilitating course of treatment, Cruden was given the all clear. His cancer was in remission and, within months, he was selected for the New Zealand under-20 rugby team.
Asked if his experience with illness had given him strength he was able to draw on in the latest chapter of his All Blacks' career, Cruden said, "I suppose I've had a few experiences in my life that I've been able to draw strength from and this is just going to be another fantastic experience on Sunday night."
In February 2010, Cruden graduated from the Manawatu provincial team into the Wellington Hurricanes and the southern hemisphere's premiere professional rugby competition, the Super 14. Only four months later he made his All Blacks debut as a replacement against Ireland.
He played six tests in his international debut season, all but one as a replacement. But in his final test in 2010, and in his first start for New Zealand, his dream began to unravel: he played poorly, he was replaced during the match as New Zealand scraped to a 23-22 win over Australia and he was dropped from the All Blacks squad.
He hadn't been able to reclaim his place by the time New Zealand's 30-man World Cup squad was named. He was omitted as the All Blacks selectors chose Colin Slade as the only back up to New Zealand's star flyhalf Dan Carter.
Cruden resigned himself to watching the tournament on television but when Carter tore a groin ligament immediately prior to New Zealand's last pool match against Canada; he received a call from head coach Graham Henry to join the team.
He was named on the bench for New Zealand's quarterfinal against Argentina and after only 33 minutes of that match was thrust into action as a replacement for Slade, who also strained a groin muscle. He played confidently and helped steer New Zealand to a 33-10 win to set up a semi-final against Australia in which he took the starting role.
That match last Sunday was the biggest of his career, an immense test of his skill and maturity and a match played in a pressure atmosphere which would have tested a lesser spirit.
He took it in his stride. Cruden played with poise well beyond his years, managed the All Blacks' game with a calm efficiency, and played a leading role in New Zealand 20-6 victory.
Three weeks ago, New Zealanders had begun to fear the injury to Carter had put paid to their hopes of ending a two-decade run of World Cup failures. On Sunday the All Blacks will go into the World Cup final against France with a nation behind them, confident in Cruden's ability to do the job.
"I'm just humbled and blessed to be back in the squad and to be given this opportunity," he said.