Aaron Cruden didn’t end up in France by accident.
Cruden is a good player and it’s nice that he’s getting a Super Rugby farewell, but let’s not use a game and a half of footy as the basis to re-write history.
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The first five-eighth had a poor series against the British and Irish Lions in 2017. Cast in the role of finisher, Cruden’s performances off the bench lacked authority and accuracy and (even worse) took too much ball out of Beauden Barrett’s hands.
If All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had his time again, you suspect he’d have kept Barrett at 10 in those games rather than pushing him out to fullback to accommodate the ineffective Cruden.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie was one of the all-time Aaron Cruden enthusiasts, dating back to their days in Manawatu. But even he came around to the idea that Damian McKenzie deserved to be the Chiefs’ first-five instead.
So off Cruden went to club football in France where, almost from the very beginning, reports emerged that his body was breaking down and form was ordinary.
Would he come back to New Zealand? Maybe he could reunite with Rennie, now that he’d gone to Scotland? Anywhere but France – where no-one appeared to rate him – sounded like a good option.
The Kobelco Steelers, in Japan, offered the 31-year-old a superannuation plan, after Montpellier got rid of him early, which has also afforded him a stint back with the Chiefs.
Again, that’s nice. When a team and player have shared some good times, no-one begrudges them wanting to get back together again.
But let’s not forget why Cruden left or pretend he’s played nothing but blinders all his life. Sure, he was handy in the Chiefs’ week two win over the Crusaders but compared to who? The fullback filling in at first five-eighth for the other team?
If Cruden, even at this stage of his career, isn’t a better 10 than David Havili, then he needn’t worry about semi-retirement in Japan. He should give the game away entirely.
What about week one, when Cruden got lucky with a kick or two in the comeback win over the Blues? Overall he was okay, but anyone can look a real game manager when the opposition first-fives are the erratic Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer.
The idea that these performances merit Cruden selection in the All Blacks – notwithstanding the inconvenient fact he’s contracted in Japan – is just laughable. I get that we’re all in the hyperbole business and talking points, no matter how absurd, help generate online clicks, but let’s not make fools of ourselves.
The fact that new All Blacks head coach Ian Foster was prepared to entertain the idea, while making a television appearance last week, probably speaks for itself.
Watch: Ian Foster discusses whether Cruden will be considered for the All Blacks
New Zealand’s best first five-eighth – Beauden Barrett – is yet to play this season, while heir apparent Richie Mo’unga has had a couple of outings. Not fit enough to kick goals, Mo’unga still looked pretty bloody useful as the Crusaders beat the Blues last Friday.
Beyond them, McKenzie will be a pivotal playmaking option for the All Blacks this year, having recovered from knee surgery. On 2018’s Northern Tour, McKenzie was just about New Zealand’s only attacking threat and, barring injury, you imagine he would have played fullback again last year with Barrett at first five-eighth.
With Mo’unga offering an option off the bench, that’s surely all the game-drivers the All Blacks need. If not, then there’s always room for a Jordie Barrett or Havili in the reserves as well.
Quite why Cruden would be required too is a mystery.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy his Super Rugby swansong. In all honesty, with he and McKenzie in the mix, and Warren Gatland as head coach, the Chiefs ought to be good enough to win the whole competition.
But that’s enough. There’s no need to add a final All Blacks chapter as well.
Some guys leave New Zealand before their time. They have family or financial issues to consider, or a rival player or unsympathetic coach blocking their way.
Cruden’s not one of those. He’d been given a good crack – 50 tests worth to be exact – without ever quite making the All Blacks’ No.10 jersey his own.
It’s been a good career and he should be proud, but let’s leave it at that.
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