In 2017, Aaron Cruden made the decision to call time on his career in New Zealand.
Having earned a century of caps in Super Rugby and half that for the All Blacks, Europe was calling, and Cruden packed his bags for what was set to be a three-year stint in Montpellier.
It’s fair to say that things didn’t quite go the way the 31-year-old would have hoped.
Over the two seasons that Cruden actually spent in the south of France, his club played 67 competition matches. The Kiwi import appeared in fewer than two-thirds of those games and was used as often as a substitute as he was a starter.
There were plenty of reports – typically speculative pieces penned from outside of France – that the former Chief was lacking form but the truth of the matter was that Cruden wasn’t under-performing for Montpellier – he was just under-playing.
“Our outside half, since he’s here, keeps hurting himself,” Montepellier owner Mohad Altrad expressed to French outlet RugbyRama. “This season, he has been injured four times. It is difficult for him to be efficient. We hoped for something else.”
While club management outwardly speaking about a player’s performance is somewhat unusual, especially outside of the enigma that is French rugby, Altrad’s comments weren’t exactly unfair.
In the six seasons that Cruden spent at the Chiefs, the pivot earned 89 caps. The Chiefs played just 104 games altogether over that period. While Cruden had a few struggles during the international seasons, there was every reason for Altrad to expect that his new first five would be on the team sheet week after week, justifying the rumoured €700K a year contract.
That obviously didn’t eventuate – but Cruden had no issues turning the form on when he was actually able to play.
“It’s funny, I saw stories and different things saying that [I was off-form] but I actually enjoyed myself and I thought I played pretty well,” Cruden told RugbyPass in an exclusive interview.
“The one thing that was really frustrating was I kept picking up little niggly injuries so maybe that’s where it came from but believe me, I was extremely frustrated with that too.
“A lot of the injuries, if not all of them that I had over in France, were muscle injuries. They were a strained calf or hamstring, which I found frustrating because I hadn’t had any of that during my time in New Zealand. It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly why that kept happening.”
In fact, Cruden wasn’t the only Montpellier player that struggled with muscle injuries, with coach Vern Cotter rarely able to field a first-choice side.
“It was probably something that was actually a bit of a theme amongst our team over there,” Cruden said.
“[I don’t know] whether it was the training load or maybe the pitches – they can get quite heavy underfoot over there, especially during the peak of winter where it can get quite cold and quite wet at times. If I have an injury, I’m always trying to figure out how I could have done things differently – it’s just my personality.
“So, for me, it was just more frustrating than anything because it was just a calf muscle that might take you out for two or three weeks here or there but it just kept happening. Normally those injuries are associated with guys that have fast-twitch fibres that are sprinters so maybe I got a lot faster or something when I moved to France, I don’t know what it was.”
Whatever the cause, the diminutive playmaker has no regrets about his decision to head north.
“Being in professional sport, you know that injuries happen,” Cruden said. “You just have to be able to try and park them, get back out on the field as quickly as possible and just enjoy yourself when you get there.
“But I really enjoyed the experience. It was cool to go over there and try and test my hand a little bit at a different style of rugby. That’s certainly what I learned while being over there; the style from the French competition compared to New Zealand and even Super Rugby is very different.
“I always said all along I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone a little bit and I was certainly able to do that.”
Anyone who tuned into Super Rugby before it was suspended in March could tell you that Cruden certainly hasn’t lost any of the acceleration and ability that made him one of the most dangerous first fives in the Southern Hemisphere prior to his departure north.
Late last year, Cruden was approached by the Chiefs who presented him with the opportunity to return to New Zealand – something which had never really be in the plans for Cruden and his wife Grace.
“When we made the decision to move away from New Zealand, we didn’t think we’d return,” Cruden revealed. “But, as I’ve come to experience throughout my rugby career, you have to be adaptable and you can have a certain plan, but it doesn’t always work out the way you think it’s going to go.
Anyone who watched 2019's Mitre 10 Cup would tell you that Lincoln McClutchie was one of the best first fives on display. Why, then, wasn't the pivot playing Super Rugby this year? @TomVinicombe reveals all. #SuperRugby #TopLeaguehttps://t.co/1hAsn0fWC6
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 7, 2020
And despite there being rumours that the Cruden might be sounded out by the Hurricanes, the team he played his first two seasons of Super Rugby for, to replace the departing Beauden Barrett, a move back home was only ever going to result in Cruden playing for one New Zealand club.
“If we were going to come back, it was only really going to be for the Chiefs,” confirmed Cruden. “I’d spent six years here before we left and built a lot of great relationships. Obviously, I have a great relationship with the franchise.
“An opportunity came up to come back home and play for the Chiefs again so we sat down and we thought about it for a while and it’s just something that slowly started to appeal to me again and that’s why we ended up making the decision to come back here.”
The return immediately played dividends, with the little general again pulling the strings superbly for the team he won two championships with back in 2012 and 2013. While Cruden’s future isn’t set in stone, there’s a good chance he’ll end up in Japan next year, but his 2020 form has seen growing calls for the Manawatu man to be awarded a black jersey for the international season.
Not every player that heads back to New Zealand after an overseas sojourn makes such an impressive return but there’s no doubting Cruden’s still-apparent abilities – and by his own admission, he’s improved as a player since his left.
“Coming back to Super Rugby this season, I certainly appreciate now the growth that I had during those couple of years over in France, both in terms of my own game as well as seeing different styles overseas,” Cruden said.
The Chiefs still possess the same mana that made the club such an important factor in Cruden’s development as both a player and a person, even though there’s been a fairly considerable change in personnel since he finished up with the side in 2017.
“We were only gone two Super Rugby seasons but from the time that I left the Chiefs to returning this season, there are a lot of new faces,” said Cruden.
“There are still a core group of guys that were in the team from my previous stint but at the same time, there are a lot of young guys and a lot of new faces, both on the coaching crew and in the playing group.
“It felt a little bit familiar but also a little bit foreign and it was a really nice balance actually. I remember running out with Anton [Lienert-Brown] and in a way, it felt familiar but it still felt new and it still felt exciting.”
That first game of the year saw the Chiefs score a come-from-behind win against the Blues in Auckland. Cruden came off the bench shortly after halftime and helped transform a 19-5 deficit into a 37-29 victory.
“I actually felt pretty good [during his return debut],” Cruden said. “Obviously, I had a few butterflies in the stomach but if I don’t have those when I’m about to run out on the field, I probably sense that there’s something wrong or I’m not quite in the right frame-of-mind.
“I think coming off the beach helped a little bit as well because I got to sit back in the first half and assess things, get a bit of a feel for the atmosphere and the flow of the game. I was really excited, more than anything, just to get back playing for a team that I’m very passionate about and back into a rugby environment that I’m very familiar with.”
Wins for the Chiefs against the Crusaders, Sunwolves and Waratahs followed, as well as losses to the Brumbies and Hurricanes before the tournament was called to a halt in late March due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Cruden was one of the competition’s form players at the time and had survived the start of the season without any recursions of the niggles that haunted his time back in Montpellier.
“Personally, I was really enjoying myself,” said Cruden.
“The body felt good and the boys were ticking along pretty well in the Chiefs camp and then, all of a sudden, you get a big roadblock and things are put on pause for a little while.
“While I was pretty frustrated, knowing I had no real control over it, I was just trying to find a bit of a silver lining and that’s being able to spend a bit of time at home with Grace, my wife, and Amelia, our young daughter.
“As a professional rugby player, you’re often at training or on the road travelling and playing games so to actually get a little bit of time now to just rest, relax and take a little bit of pressure off Grace and do some daddy duties has been pretty fun. Obviously, I still want to get out on the field as soon as possible, but you just try and make the best of the situation that’s in front of you.”
He will go down as one of the all-time great locks, but Test centurion Sam Whitelock can't just live on reputation with the All Blacks. @bensmithrugby writes the odds are against Whitelock being around by the next World Cup. #AllBlacks https://t.co/eJ9bYt3VuI
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 6, 2020
With Super Rugby poised to return in the near future, Cruden will soon get the chance to take the field with his Chiefs brothers once more – though they’ll be starting from a blank slate for the new New Zealand-only competition.
It probably hasn’t been the season that the former All Black would have been anticipating when he first signed to return for the Chiefs but, as Cruden alluded to, professional rugby rarely goes the way you’d expect.
Running out for the New Zealand Under 20 side in 2009, Cruden never would have expected that he’d move away from Hurricanes-territory in the not-too-distant future to win two Super Rugby titles and earn almost 100 caps for the Chiefs. He also wouldn’t have anticipated that he’d eventually be capped by the All Blacks, let alone play 50 games for the national side.
The subsequent move to Montpellier, where things didn’t quite go to plan due to ongoing injuries, was just one more twist in the tale for the experienced pivot.
“Yeah, I know there have been people that sort of said I struggled over there but from my point of view, it was pretty cool to be able to experience that culture and play a different style and learn a lot of things about the games,” Cruden said. “To be able to bring that back to Super Rugby this year has been quite cool as well.
“I think if I didn’t go and do that, I would probably be sitting here now wondering ‘what if?’. For me to be able to go and do that and still get the opportunity to come back has been awesome and they’re certainly experiences that, when I retire and look back on, I’ll be able to think it was cool to go and experience some different and give it a real crack.
“I’m just happy that, touch wood, hopefully, all those things are behind me and I’ve been able to come back into Super Rugby and the body’s felt good, the legs have held up pretty well, and hopefully we can get back out on the field and they continue to do me good for however long the season lasts.”
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