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James Lawton: Kid next door Cruden has the world in his hands


Daniel Carter will receive a World Cup winner's medal if his team-mates beat France in his absence on Sunday, retain his lucrative underwear ads and remain the most idolised Kiwi by roughly the width of the Tasman Sea.

It is reward for being the world's most gifted rugby player. However, his second-choice understudy, Aaron Cruden, is not going short of recognition for his brave and at times extremely accomplished attempt to run in the footsteps of the injured national icon.

Cruden? At 22 he still looks like every kid who ever lived next door. Not so long ago he listed Home and Away as his favourite TV show and his dream car was a Toyota. Yet there is a growing conviction that on Sunday night at Eden Park the Little Big Man of the All Blacks will make one of the most impressive rites of passage in the history of his sport.

Maybe, though, it shouldn't be such a great surprise that the boy from Palmerston North, who was picked by his high-school team at the age of 15 and was captain two years later, has shown the nerve to step in so confidently after Carter's deputy Colin Slade suffered a groin strain in the first half of the quarter-final against Argentina.

He had already beaten a somewhat deeper challenge when he fought through testicular cancer which was showing signs that it had spread to his lungs. Cruden (right) was 19 when he had a testicle removed and months of heavy chemotherapy but his recovery, and stirring leadership of the Manawatu Turbos, maybe brought an echo of a tribute once made to the young cliff divers of Acapulco. "You need cojones to do that," said a new admirer. "Yes, he was told – one of silver and one of gold." Cruden's All Black team-mate, scrum-half Piri Weepu, is not the most sentimental of men, this week gave his young fly-half partner the equivalent of a battlefield commission.

Weepu said: "He stepped up, he prepared well during the week. Before the Australian game we said to him, 'They're going to target you but don't worry, we've got your back'." It was some support but then it was also some back.

It seemed to stiffen with pride after he sent over a perfectly measured drop goal to push the All Blacks into a crucial 11-3 lead. Yesterday Cruden confirmed that it was indeed a moment he had dreamt of. He said: "Before the game Daniel and Conrad [Smith] told me, 'Don't be shy to give it a nudge' and that kick went over very sweetly. I reckon most New Zealand kids have that dream when they are playing footy in the yard, the one that you're kicking a goal or scoring a try in a World Cup final."

Cruden was minus two years when the All Blacks won their one and only trophy but he knows well enough the details. "I've seen the film and, of course, I know what Sunday's game means," he says. "A lot of people are just assuming we're going to repeat history but I've learnt enough in my time to know that you cannot write them [France] off. People have written them off in this tournament but they have made the final and they are dangerous."