Sunday 18 March 2018

Resilient Cruden on hunt for more glory

All Black Aaron Cruden is set to make his European debut for Montpellier in Dublin tomorrow Photo: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
All Black Aaron Cruden is set to make his European debut for Montpellier in Dublin tomorrow Photo: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

If you look closely at Aaron Cruden's wrist when he lines out at the RDS tomorrow afternoon, you will see 'GEJ0342' written across his tape.

While you would be forgiven for thinking that it is a reminder of one of Montpellier's set moves, it is a code that is of much greater significance to anything he will encounter on a rugby pitch.

To understand how Cruden has developed into one of the best out-halves in the world, it's important to provide some context to his back-story.

As a 19-year-old, the Kiwi had his world turned upside down when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs. Written on his wrist is his hospital patient number during those tough times.

Several gruelling rounds of chemotherapy later and having had a testicle removed, Cruden fought his way to the other side and within seven months he resumed his dream of one day becoming an All Black.

His comeback was completed in Japan at the 2009 U-20 World Cup when an Irish team including Leinster's Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Dave Kearney were one of New Zealand's victims en route to a resounding win.

Nineteen points, including two tries, from Cruden in New Zealand's final win over England, would confirm what a lot of the Kiwi public had already known - this was a star in the making.

The only problem now was the man who owned the All Blacks' No 10 jersey.

For years, Cruden was heralded as the heir to Dan Carter's throne and to have amassed 50 caps, most of which were won during Carter's time, was an achievement in itself, but as the endless talent machine in New Zealand continued to churn out special players, Beauden Barrett arrived on the scene to complicate matters.

Two years after guiding the Baby Blacks to the U-20 World Cup, Cruden found himself on the world stage again, only this time it was on a larger scale.

A groin injury cut short Carter's home World Cup and when his replacement Colin Slade suffered the same fate, Cruden suddenly found himself pulling the strings in the quarter-final against Argentina, the semi-final win over Australia and later in the final triumph over France.

It capped a remarkable journey for a player who had stared death in the face and refused to give up on his dream.

There was however, something of a curse on the All Black No 10 jersey in the 2011 World Cup as Cruden would be forced off after just 34 minutes of the decider.

As fate dealt another cruel hand, four years later the Chiefs' playmaker would require a reconstruction of the same knee that he injured that night in Eden Park.

It ruined his hopes of playing at the last World Cup but such is his resilience, that latest setback was never going to keep him down.

Carter hung up his international boots after the All Blacks' latest success in 2015 which seemingly paved the way for Cruden, but it never quite worked out like that.

Last year, when Carter and 1995 World Cup star Andrew Mehrtens publicly backed Cruden to be the next man to lead New Zealand, it seemed for all the world that his time had arrived.

Yet here we are, just over 12 months later and Cruden, now 28, is set to make his European debut with Montpellier in Dublin.

The three-year deal that he signed with the French club is understood to be worth €800,000 per season but in signing it, he waved goodbye to any chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.

Barrett's emergence into arguably the best out-half in the world certainly helped make his decision to leave New Zealand a little easier, while the eye-watering salary was too good to turn down in what is ultimately a short career.

Cruden has happy memories of playing in Dublin. The last two times he rocked up in the capital, he played a key role in the All Blacks beating Ireland, and none more so than four years ago.

When Irish supporters think of that agonising 24-22 defeat at the Aviva in 2013, Ryan Crotty tends to be the name that brings up all kinds of sobering memories.

It was Crotty's try that brought about the pain but it was Cruden's touchline conversion that broke their hearts.

With a World Cup and two Super Rugby medals in his back pocket, he arrived in the south of France with his sights firmly set on writing the latest chapter of his remarkable story.

Montpellier have big plans - that much is obvious from the kind of money that they have spent in recent months - and Cruden is at the fulcrum of their hopes of winning silverware.

"We'll go to Dublin with ambition," Cruden said ahead of his side's Champions Cup opener against Leinster.

"We have studied their game-plan and have put a plan in place to counteract it.

"It will be difficult, but the whole team is ready for the challenge."

A tough challenge awaits but one that will be nothing like what Cruden has already overcome off the pitch.

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