The curious case of Cruden
OPINION: Whispers are quickly growing louder that Montpellier and All Black Aaron Cruden could be about to take a sizeable pay cut to relocate from the south of France to the cooler climates of Glasgow where he would link up with former mentor Dave Rennie.
Since departing New Zealand in 2017, Cruden has had a difficult time adjusting to the challenges of playing rugby in France – not the least because he has continued to have poor luck with injuries.
When Cruden was cut down by a neck injury in the All Blacks’ test match with the touring Wales side in June 2016, it was the beginning of the end of the Manawatu born number 10’s New Zealand rugby career.
After Dan Carter departed New Zealand’s shores upon successfully defending the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup crown in 2015, Cruden was expected to step into Carter’s vacated position.
Cruden was no stranger to the role, having already played 36 test matches for the All Blacks – including a few where he had put on some absolutely sublime displays.
Perhaps his best ever performance for the All Blacks was in their third test of 2012, against a touring Irish side. Cruden started the match at first five and, in one of the most clinical 25-minute showings you’ll ever see for a 10, absolutely dismantled the Irish defence – paving the way for a 60-0 victory.
Likely Cruden’s most well known act in an All Blacks jersey was kicking the final conversion in their come-from-behind victory over Ireland at the end of 2013 – preventing the Irish team from getting their first ever win over New Zealand, having led 22-nil at one point.
One step down from test rugby, Cruden also achieved two Super Rugby championships with the Chiefs, and in his six years with the team they never once failed to make the finals series.
It had been evident that Cruden was the man to take over from Carter in 2016, but when Barrett relieved him of his duties against Wales in the second test of a three-match series, the picture suddenly became a lot blurrier.
Beauden Barrett had been nipping at Cruden’s feet for a number of years – first at the Hurricanes, where Cruden started his Super Rugby career, and then at the All Blacks. Cruden’s neck injury against Wales gave Barrett an opportunity to stake his claim to be the starting number 10 for the All Blacks in the post-Carter era – an opportunity that Barrett took with open arms, and he established a tight grip over the jersey that Cruden never managed to win back.
When Cruden signed for Montpellier in 2017, his fans were disappointed that even though he had delivered some excellent performances for the All Blacks, the Chiefs and Manawatu, he had never quite lived up to his potential in New Zealand – his career curtailed by injuries occurring at the most inopportune times.
These injuries haven’t subsided since Cruden relocated to France, either.
Cruden made his debut for Montpellier against Agen in their opening match of the 2017-18 TOP 14 season – less than a month after he had completed his duties with the Chiefs.
Since Cruden joined the club, Montpellier has played 62 matches. Cruden, however, has notched up only 33 appearances for the team and, especially in recent times, has found himself down the pecking order of inside backs.
With Johan Goosen, Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar all on the books – players who are all capable of playing at 10 and kicking goals, Cruden has found it tougher and tougher to make match day squads– but that’s also a product of his continuing injury curse.
Earlier in the year, Montpellier boss Mohed Altrad was particularly despondent when questioned about Cruden’s performances for the team.
“Our outside half, since he’s here, keeps hurting himself,” Altrad said.
“This season he has been injured four times. It is difficult for him to be efficient. We hoped for something else.”
Cruden’s struggles with injuries have meant that he has barely managed to string any performances together – good or bad. It’s completely understandable why Altrad has been dejected over paying over $1 million a year for a player who has been unavailable for selection or out of form.
It’s no surprise, really, that Altrad would therefore be willing to let Cruden part ways with the club to re-establish his partnership with Dave Rennie without requiring any financial compensation.
Glasgow, who currently sit top of their pool in the Pro14 but were thumped in their Champions Cup quarterfinal by Saracens, could be well-served by bringing in the experienced flyhalf.
22-year-old Adam Hastings is the current first-choice number 10 for the Warriors, having spent the former part of his career camped behind Scotland’s starting flyhalf, Finn Russell.
Russell, who now plays for French side Racing 92, played in over 80 matches for Glasgow and led the team to a Pro12 title in 2015. Since his departure, Hastings has grown into his role as key playmaker and put on an accomplished display during their most recent match with Leinster. There is no doubt that Hastings is the future for Glasgow – and possibly the Scottish national side – but that doesn’t mean a man like Cruden wouldn’t be incredibly useful to the Warriors.
Hastings, for all his promise, is still a very green flyhalf, having played barely 30 professional games of rugby. Hastings sometimes has a habit of overplaying his hand and while there’s plenty to like about a young player who is willing to take a chance from inside his own 22, Hastings is still learning when it would be better to take the safe option. At times you can still tell that the Edinburgh-born 10 cut his teeth as a fullback during his earlier years.
Cruden, revered for his creativity and playmaking ability, is a natural 10, through and through. His small stature (175cm and 84kg) requires him to think a little faster than the behemoths he’s usually tasked with opposing – both forwards and backs – and has forced him to develop the skills that aren’t dependant on size, strength or even outright speed.
Hastings, a handy 10cm taller than Cruden, has been able to rely on his top-end pace to paper over some of the cracks in his game. Under Cruden’s tutelage, Hastings could well develop into the kind of 10 that could lead Glasgow to another championship – or perhaps take over from Russell for Scotland when the time comes.
The other big advantage to Glasgow of bringing in a foreign first five is that they will have an experienced operator available to take the field when international rugby pulls the Warriors’ Scottish representatives from the squad. Hastings, although clearly second fiddle to Russell, has been unavailable for Glasgow at various times throughout the last season due to international commitments – something that won’t be an issue for Cruden due to the All Blacks selection policy.
There is, of course, the concern that Cruden isn’t the same player he was when he left New Zealand’s shores a year and a half ago. Is Cruden likely to fair any better in Glasgow than he has in Montpellier, injuries wise? And even if Cruden is able to remain fit, has his game been depleted due to the countless weeks he has spent on the side lines?
Glasgow coach Rennie probably knows Cruden better than almost anyone, having coached the first five for the New Zealand U20 team, Manawatu and the Chiefs.
When Cruden and Rennie parted ways at the end of the 2017 Super Rugby season, Cruden was quick to sing Rennie’s praises, commenting on how important the affable coach was to his development as a rugby player and a person.
“Lots of the boys think it’s a father-son relationship,” Cruden said at the time. “They give me a bit of stick about being the coach’s son…but he was one guy who gave me an opportunity when a few people wouldn’t.
“He’s certainly been more than a just a coach to me. He’s been a mentor and I am very thankful for the opportunity to have worked with Rens.”
Perhaps what Cruden need to rediscover his magic is the unwavering support of a man like Rennie, who has always been able to bring out the best in the flyhalf.
In the coming days all will certainly be revealed, but even if we don’t see the due of Aaron Cruden and Dave Rennie reunite at Glasgow, it’s worth wondering whether Cruden’s time in the Northern Hemisphere would have played out any differently with the backing of a father-like figure such as Rennie as coach, instead of playing for a rich, who’s who of former internationals in the south of France.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass