Aaron Cruden, who wasn’t even born when New Zealand won the Rugby World Cup in 1987, said he isn’t fazed by having to pilot his country’s bid for a second title in next weekend’s final against France.
The 22-year-old, who underwent successful treatment after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in his late teens, was thrust into the role of first-choice fly-half before the semifinals after injuries to Dan Carter and Colin Slade. He helped steer the All Blacks to a 20-6 win over Australia and a spot in the Oct. 23 title decider at Auckland’s Eden Park.
“I’ve had a few experiences in my life that I’ve been able to draw strength from and this is going to be another fantastic experience on Sunday,” Cruden said yesterday at the team hotel. “It’s something that I dreamt of as a little fella and something I’m very excited about.”
Cruden wasn’t selected in New Zealand’s original 30-man World Cup squad. He was skateboarding around his hometown and preparing for a trip to Disneyland when he was called up after Carter, the record points scorer in elite Test rugby, tore a groin tendon during kicking practice on Oct. 1
Nine days later Cruden took over as the host nation’s No. 1 playmaker after Slade sustained a similar injury to Carter during New Zealand’s quarterfinal victory over Argentina.
After coming off the bench to replace Slade for the final 47 minutes of the 33-10 win over the Pumas, Cruden found himself starting in the role for only the second time in his eight-Test career a week later against Australia.
“He’s had bigger challenges in his life than this and he’s been able to bring that courage and ability to handle pressure through into this role,” All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith said at the news conference. “He’s a pretty special kid.”
With the Wallabies runners targeting his 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame, Cruden’s defense stood up. He also showed the “coolness” to kick a 22nd-minute drop goal, according to Australia’s 1991 World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones.
“He executed his job very well and, while there were some expected lapses, his general maturity and calmness was the standout for me,” Farr-Jones wrote in the New Zealand Herald. “He seemed to thrive on the business of the game, such were the tactics of his team, and was constantly realigning with his troops for more thrusts into the Wallaby defensive lines.”
Smith said the 2009 International Rugby Board junior player of the year had responded positively after being told to improve aspects of his game following his omission from the All Blacks squad for the 2010 tour to Hong Kong and Europe.
“You’ve seen the difference there particularly in his ability to kick and to dominate games through kicking,” said Smith, who will coach Cruden at the Chiefs Super Rugby team starting next season. “That’s been the big improvement and like it or not every All Black fly-half needs that ability and he’s gone and developed that through a lot of hard work.”
Cruden captained New Zealand to the IRB Junior World Championship title in 2009. He was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2008, and underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy before being medically cleared.
Cruden said he’s still got more to learn about the game and will seek out Carter’s advice before the final against France at Eden Park, where the All Blacks are on a 26-match winning run stretching back to a 23-20 loss to the French in July 1994.
“He sent me a text message before the semifinal wishing me the best,” Cruden said. “I’ll definitely be going to him and just asking him what he thinks about certain things this week and pick his brains so that I can be as well prepared as I can come kickoff time on Sunday.”
With All Blacks head coach Graham Henry having banned him from his skateboard since he joined the squad, Cruden said finding ways to keep busy between now and then will be his first challenge. The match begins at 9 p.m. local time to suit European television audiences.
“It’s really important that you build throughout the week but you’re not sort of over thinking about the game and you really find time for that balance,” he said.
Top-ranked New Zealand won by 20 points when the teams met in a Sept. 24 Pool A match, one of two losses for France in the group stage. The French, who were also upset by Tonga, rebounded to beat England and Wales to become the first nation to reach a World Cup final after two losses. Coach Marc Lievremont today named an unchanged starting lineup for the third match in a row.
The All Blacks beat France 29-9 at Eden Park 24 years ago to win rugby’s first World Cup and have lost three semifinals, a final and a quarterfinal since Cruden was born.
“Hopefully that can change on Sunday,” Cruden said. “It’s definitely what we’re aiming for.”