Like many others following Saturday’s blitzing of the Wallabies, I was left considering whether the All Blacks were really human after all or if they were, in fact, an alien race with genetically superior rugby abilities. Thankfully, I caught up with a reassuringly humanoid Aaron Cruden who spared me a couple of minutes to not only put my paranoia to bed, but also to tell me about the AIG Rugby Safety Awards, a programme which he has been helping to launch this week.
“It’s a great scheme,” says Cruden. “It’s designed to raise awareness from grass roots level all the way up to the professional game on how we can make rugby as safe as possible. Obviously it’s a physical game, and injuries will happen, but small things like choosing the right protective equipment and honing your tackle technique can really help prevent them going forward. That’s why we’re really focusing on educating young players who are coming into the game.”
Cruden is certainly a man of good habits. As a smaller man on a professional rugby field (or, more accurately, a regular-sized man in a world of behemoths), Cruden has had to pay particular attention to some of the lessons that the scheme will be teaching youngsters.
“For me it’s just all about technique in the tackle – I was really lucky when I growing up that I had lots of great coaches and plenty of bigger mates who kindly offered to run at me, so I had plenty of practice! It just goes to show that if you can get into good habits younger, your size shouldn’t affect your enjoyment on the field.”
It’s probably fair to say that Cruden had no issues with enjoyment over the weekend, playing a blinder as the All Blacks demolished Australia 51 – 20. After the awkward first two Tests against a weakened England side and a poor display in Sydney, have the All Blacks answered the questions posed by critics looking for a sign of weakness?
“I think we have,” agrees Cruden. “A lot of the questions, to be honest, were being asked by the All Blacks coaches, the management – and the players ourselves. We expected to perform better than we did in Australia, and so to perform like we did in the return fixture was really satisfying. We had a great build-up and really clear idea on what needed to be done – and to execute those ideas was probably the most rewarding thing about the result.”
It’s a busy life being an All Black – winning World Cups, Rugby Championships and Bledisloe Cups, promoting worthy causes like the AIG Rugby Safety Awards – so it probably comes as no surprise that Cruden won’t be spending his ‘free’ weekend between matches doing anything too demanding.
“I’ll probably just spend it home to be fair!” admits Cruden. “I’ll mow the lawn, do some house chores and generally try to keep the place tidy – stuff that doesn’t really get done when you’re on tour with the lads! That’s just the way I do it though; it helps me relax and get away briefly from the rugby side of things so that, when I do come back into the rugby environment, I’m enthusiastic and excited to put in the hard work all over again.”
The men in black will certainly need to put in plenty of hard work to be ready for the Pumas, who showed in their heartbreaking defeat against the Springboks that they are ready to shed the tag of a team full of grunt, but short on flair.
“You can say the usual things about Argentina – they’ll play with a lot of heart and passion and physicality – but they’ve really added another element to their game now, especially with Nicholas Sanchez in the 10 jersey. They’ve got an unpredictability when they throw the ball around and they start to get their tails up – of course, the forwards are going to be in for a huge battle, but they’ve got a lot of quick, elusive guys out wide and we’re going to have to be very tight to shut any space down.”
It’s a game with added impetus, given that the two nations will be facing down one another in just over one year’s time, as they meet in Pool C of the Rugby World Cup. As much as they will try to avoid it, surely there is one eye on the game’s ultimate prize now?
“Yeah, I think there is,” admits Cruden. “We obviously don’t want to look too far ahead but with the World Cup knocking on the door now, you do end up being aware of it and we’ll obviously get a good look at each other over the next few weeks with next year in mind. But for us, the immediate motivation is to build on our last display against Australia and we’re set on trying to get a good result against Argentina.”
With Cruden pulling the strings in the majority of All Blacks tests over the last 18 months, it’s easy to forget that he’s not even technically first choice if a certain Dan Carter is available. It’s not an enviable position to be in – stepping into the shoes of one of the greatest players of the generation and, all the while, having your heels snapped at by other talents, such as Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett. Lesser men would wilt under the pressure.
“I just have to accept that I can only control what I can control” says Cruden. “If I let external influences affect me, that’s when I’m likely to trip up so that’s why, for me, it’s about making sure I’m having fun playing the game and enjoying every opportunity I get. You never know how long you’ll be playing the game for and the chance to test myself against the best is something that I relish every day”.
With the path to European club rugby increasingly well-trodden, and a perfect opportunity to take it after the World Cup next year, does it hold any temptation for the Chiefs’ playmaker?
“Not any time in the immediate future – I’ve just signed a 3 year deal to stay in New Zealand!” laughs Cruden. “But I have discussed it with the wife and the idea of playing rugby off-shore at some point is definitely something that appeals to us. I’m not sure when exactly when that might be, but we’d both love to experience a different at some point, so never say never!”
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Aaron Cruden was speaking at the launch of the AIG Rugby Safety Awards, a global campaign to tackle safety in rugby. Watch the video or visit www.aig.com/saferugby to find out how your club could win equipment for your club.