Coming back to Super Rugby is no cakewalk.
We’re quick to laud returning All Blacks greats – and to imagine all manner of deeds they might perform – but there’s a reason guys go in the first place.
January 31 seems a lifetime ago. Back then no-one had ever heard of COVID-19. Many of us were just glad the footy was back on and to see Aaron Cruden engineer a 37-29 win for the Chiefs over the Blues at Eden Park.
The Chiefs were many people’s pick to win Super Rugby at that point, while the Blues were still regarded as a team who eventually gave up when things got hard.
Such was Cruden’s command that night people began to clamour for an All Black comeback.
The Kobelco Steelers now beckon for Cruden instead, who can still feel proud of this stint in Super Rugby and his broader contribution to New Zealand rugby.
It’s not slight on Daniel Carter, for instance, that he hasn’t yet appeared for the Blues and now probably won’t do. For every Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams, who return to the All Blacks’ fold after years playing elsewhere, there are others that don’t scale the same heights.
Again, there’s no shame in that. No-one thought any less of, say, Ma’a Nonu previously and now Cruden or Carter for not coming back and tearing the competition apart.
It’s nice for Julian Savea to get picked up by the Hurricanes at this late stage. Nice too for the Hurricanes, who needed something to obscure the departures of Ben Lam and Kobus van Wyk. The bottom line, though, is that Savea’s best days are behind him and that’s fine.
But that also highlights how well Cruden has done to at least have some impact with the Chiefs. Pre-COVID most observers were pretty impressed with he and the team and it’s unfortunate that things haven’t been quite so good since.
That doesn’t diminish him in any way, though.
It’s easy to forget Cruden is a cancer survivor or to overlook the part he played in making the Chiefs the organisation they are now.
Before men like Cruden and coaches Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, the Chiefs were only average. Not quite an also-ran, but never really one of Super Rugby’s elite sides either.
Cruden was part of changing all that and of building a team who were back-to-back champions in 2012 and 2013 and greater than the sum of their parts.
Super Rugby has seen some star-studded teams in its time, but those Chiefs weren’t among them. But with Rennie and Smith scheming in the background – and Cruden implementing it all from first five-eighth – they still enjoyed remarkable success.
To see Smith among those at FMG Stadium on Saturday to mark Cruden’s 100th appearance for the Chiefs, and last at home, was actually quite touching. So many of those types of celebrations seem forced or fall flat, but this one looked entirely genuine. And deserved.
The Chiefs are better for Cruden’s contribution and not every franchise can say that about departing players.
Let’s not forget he played 50 tests for New Zealand as well, which is no mean feat when your career is sandwiched between those of Carter and Beauden Barrett.
Cruden got himself into the odd scrape along the way and – like many players – didn’t originally leave New Zealand for no reason. It’s good that he’s been able to come back and bring up the hundred games and depart again on a reasonable note.
As for the rest of us, hopefully we can learn to take a breath. To watch a returning player, such as Cruden, and not immediately proclaim them a saviour.
It’s okay for people to play well without having to thrust them into the All Blacks’ conversation. Just as it’s okay to say others, such as Carter and Julian Savea, are past it and unlikely to get on the park.
Cruden’s been a great Chief and a good All Black and we should wish him all the best.
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