With a full strength squad, winning a test match in New Zealand is about the hardest peak to scale in international rugby. England have managed it only twice in their history, so to do it with half of your first choice team unavailable is approaching the impossible.
Very few people give England a chance when they face the best in the world on Saturday, with those who played in the Premiership final last weekend unavailable. Aaron Cruden, however, who lines up against them for New Zealand, insists the All Blacks aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We know that whoever they put in the jersey are going to go out there and do a job for the side,” says the fly-half. “We’re aware of that, and we have to make sure we’re really focused on our preparation.
“We need to understand the guys that we’re going to be coming out against, and the threats that they pose.”
This is an interesting turn of phrase, and rings a bit hollow given the barraging his teammate Brodie Retallick has been getting in the press recently for appearing to struggle to name a single England player at a press conference. He eventually named ‘Michael’ Lawes, referring to Courtney Lawes, his direct rival this series.
Cruden dismisses it as nothing more than short term memory loss on behalf of his friend and teammate.
“The big fella’s probably put his head in a few too many scrums!” he laughs. “He didn’t mean anything by it.
“Talking to Brodie this morning, he knows his name is Courtney Lawes, and he just had a total mind blank. There’s a politician around here called Michael Laws, and he just got a bit mixed up.”
Cruden himself has been facing his own issues heading into the first test, of a more traditional nature for a sportsman – a poorly-timed injury, and the superb form of a competitor. The Chiefs fly-half has been out for seven weeks with a broken thumb, but shrugs off any talk of rustiness with the casual nonchalance only the confidence of being an All Black can give you.
“I’ve had a couple of runs, so hopefully the rustiness is all gone, and I’ve really enjoyed this week,” he says. “There’s been a bit of sunshine, and hopefully that continues through to Saturday and there are some nice dry conditions out there for us to be playing in at Eden Park.”
With Dan Carter on a sabbatical from rugby, Cruden is the man that has been trusted with the keys to the fabled New Zealand attack. To be fair to the man, he is no stranger to the challenge, having been capped 29 times. In recent seasons persistent injuries to Carter has seen Cruden move out of his shadow and assert himself as one of the best fly-halves on the planet in his own right.
But that lengthy injury lay-off, coupled with the sublime form of Beauden Barrett, the top points scorer in Super Rugby, had many expecting to see the man from Waikato benched for this game. Cruden says the threat of Barrett brings a healthy competition to the group, and only spurs him on.
“It’s great, and we’ve also got Colin Slade in the squad as well, so the depth in first five-eighths here is really strong,” he points out. “The great thing about New Zealand rugby is the depth in all positions. To have that healthy competition is only good as a player – it makes you want to work harder, and really perform every opportunity you get.”
Such depth is something England fans can only dream of. Cruden will line-up this weekend opposite Freddie Burns, a sublimely talented individual who has sadly lost his way this season and would probably rank as England’s fourth or fifth choice fly-half on current form. The All Blacks, however, are wary of the threat the Gloucester fly-half can pose – after all, having made his debut in the famous win over them at Twickenham in 2012, he has a rather good record against this weekend’s opponents.
“He made his debut against us a couple of years ago, so he’ll be really excited about the opportunity that he’s been given,” Cruden says. “We’re aware of his strengths so we need to make sure we nullify them and shut him down as much as possible. The 9 and 10 are always the link between the forwards and backs, so we’ll be trying to stop that as much as we can.”
Returning to matters closer to home, Cruden speaks highly of New Zealand’s newest recruits. Centre Malakai Fekitoa has been taking Super Rugby by storm this season, and Cruden is as excited as everyone else to see him get a chance at this level.
“I’ve been really impressed with both him and Patrick Tuipulotu [the Blues lock who is the other new face in the squad]. The enthusiasm they bring really rubs on off everyone – it’s infectious. It’s great to see guys like that being rewarded for such great form.”
Enthusiastic, focused and desperate to prove to everyone that this season’s injury troubles are behind him – Aaron Cruden is talking a good game heading into Saturday’s first test. England fans will be hoping that doesn’t translate onto the pitch – but won’t be holding their breath.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Aaron Cruden was speaking on behalf of AIG, the official insurance partner of New Zealand Rugby. Join the conversation @AIGRugby