There will be a tremendous roar when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off in mid-June after what will have been a three month wait without rugby in New Zealand.
That roar may be confined to fans’ homes, with live audiences unlikely at least for the early stages of the competition, but with Super Rugby finally back on the menu, there’ll be plenty more ammunition for watercooler chats across the country – though they may also be conducted through an online medium.
Creating a new competition hasn’t been an easy task for New Zealand Rugby with so many stakeholders to consult on the process and even once the idea was formulated, there were a few hurdles for the nation’s five Super Rugby clubs.
The Chiefs ran into one major hurdle – having returned from France, first five Aaron Cruden was only contracted to the side until June.
Although nothing’s been confirmed, Cruden is expected to head to Japan for next season’s Top League. Re-negotiating terms could cause a few headaches because Cruden’s future side wouldn’t want the marquee player to arrive injured – which becomes more probable when his final game with the Chiefs is pushed out further in the calendar.
Thankfully, the deal was sorted and Cruden is free to lace up the boots for the Chiefs until the end of the new season in August.
What remains uncertain is the playmaker’s plans for later in the year, with Cruden not initially signing a contract tying him to a provincial union for the Mitre 10 Cup season.
“Ngans [Ngani Laumape] actually sent me a message to ask me about playing Mitre 10 for Manawatu,” Cruden told RugbyPass.
“At this stage, we’re not really sure, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with any rugby and what that sort of framework looks like and then we’ll just go from there.”
That was prior to the new competition’s confirmation and the 31-year-old may feel that re-committing to Super Rugby is enough to quench his rugby thirst for 2020 but there will be certain aspects of returning to Manawatu that must appeal massively to Cruden – especially if all the All Blacks are involved.
“The ability to play with world-class players like Ngani is always appealing, especially when you go back to your province where you grew up,” he said.
“For me, Manawatu were the ones who gave me my first opportunity in the professional game and I’ll always be extremely thankful for them. The green and white still have a jersey at home here so I’m certainly very proud of those roots.”
The 2020 edition of the Mitre 10 Cup is due to kick off in early September – one month after the original planned start date.
While fixtures aren’t yet available for the competition, expectations are that it will follow the same format as in previous years with split divisions, although outgoing Taranaki Rugby chairman Lindsay Thompson has suggested that some teams may not be able to take part given the financial hits the unions have taken due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Assuming all goes ahead as planned, fans would likely see some players suiting up for provincial rugby for the first time in a number of years, with top All Blacks rarely being employed by their provinces.
Scott and Jordie Barrett, who were both originally contracted to Canterbury, changed allegiance back to their local Taranaki in recent seasons but neither has actually had the opportunity to don the amber and black hoops.
Others like Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock accrued plenty of caps for their provincial sides early in their careers but haven’t played a Mitre 10 Cup game for a long time.
Big things were expected of the Chiefs' 10 in France but the reality was disappointing. Still, no one would question the ability of the playmaker now that he's back in NZ. @TomVinicombe spoke with Aaron Cruden about his return. #SuperRugby #AllBlacks https://t.co/57nyavRSqb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 10, 2020
For Cruden in particular, who has been away from New Zealand for the past two seasons, a return to Manawatu for the Mitre 10 Cup would also allow the pivot to spend plenty of time with his family and possibly play with his younger brother too.
“Stuart, my younger brother, made his debut for Manawatu last season in the Mitre 10 Cup and is just coming through the ranks there so he was hoping to push for an Under 20s spot this year,” Cruden said. “I’m sure he’s obviously putting his head down and still training hard like the rest of us.”
The Under 20s competition has been called off for 2020, which means New Zealand’s upcoming talent will have to earn selection in a provincial side if they want to get any high-level rugby under their belt this season.
For Aaron Cruden, however, 2020 will be his sign-off from New Zealand rugby – regardless of whether he links up with Manawatu – and he’ll be doing his part to help guide the Chiefs to their first Super Rugby title since 2013.
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