James Lawton: Kid next door Cruden has world in hands after beating cancer
Carter's understudy is not going short of recognition for his brave and extremely accomplished attempt to run in the footsteps of the injured national icon
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, an artistic leader who gives the game a unique dimension of grace and vision. 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.
Apart from a likely £50,000 win bonus, there is also a rumour that his battle-hardened team-mates may have a whip round and present him with a new skateboard.
Ever since Russell Crowe's family decamped for Australia, Carter has been the nearest thing this impressively well-balanced nation – true, every four years rugby has to be taken out of the equation – gets to Hollywood.
Cruden? At 22 he still looks like every kid who ever lived next door.
Had Carter not gone down, Cruden would now be just another young tourist in Florida's Disney World. Not so long ago he listed the Home and Away soap opera 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 was battered out of the tournament 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 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, a tough often disputatious Maori whose mother and sometime mentor was recently quoted thus: "He was a prick to coach." All the trouble, though, has been justified by major performances in the wake of Carter's disappearance, not least when he battled a virus in the semi-final victory over Australia, and this week he has given his young fly-half partner the equivalent of a battlefield commission.
Weepu said: "He stepped up, he prepared well during the week – he stepped off his skateboard. I suppose it's great to have the support of Ma'a Nonu outside him and myself on the inside and him working with Richie McCaw and getting everything clear for him so when he comes out on to the field all he has to do is play. 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 an 11-3 lead, a vital piece of points-gathering amid some incipient fears that a sensationally positive start had not smashed utterly the Australian hopes. Yesterday Cruden confirmed that it was indeed an exhilarating moment. 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."
Yes, he agreed, it was the kind of moment he had envisaged all those times in his backyard. "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 of the win over France by the team led by David Kirk. "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."
Aaron Cruden may never be Daniel Carter but from the moment he came into the camp, when the unfortunate, haunted Slade was trying to absorb the fact that most of his countrymen were dismayed that he would be wearing the No 10 jersey in the knockout phase of the tournament, he showed more than a glint of self-confidence.
The Argentina back row targeted Slade hard and early and he left the match and the tournament with more than a pocketful of regrets. Cruden came on with quick feet and sharp instincts – an impression he augmented against Australia. Weepu's verdict was succinct but deeply approving, saying: "I think he made all the tackles when they went up his channel and he did a really good job running the [lines]."
He ran and thought quickly and no doubt provoked the watching French into the same resolution made by the Wallabies. The kid had to be subdued at the first opportunity. No doubt the chore is in the most formidable hands if the French do come to fight on Sunday. However, if Imanol Harinordoquy is the most formidable of hunters he is not tracking tender, guileless prey.
"What the rest of the country saw him do on Sunday, people in the Manawatu already knew," says Turbos coach Dave Rennie. Cruden's former school coach, Rhys Archibald, recalled: "He started off a little fella but he showed such a great example that when he left us we had to start a leadership programme to try to fill the vacuum."
The cancer came soon after he graduated, a provincial star who had already registered on the national radar. After being given the all-clear, Cruden said: "You never expect to hear you have cancer at the age of 19. That was a big shock ... my life was just beginning. My rugby was just starting to go well."
Three years after that moment of deliverance, Cruden yesterday faced the nation. "Danny," he reported, "has been sending me messages and I'm sure I'll be picking his brains before the final. He has told me just to focus on the week, build it, go from step to step. 'Just be the player you are,' he said to me the other day. No, I will not be taking over his TV ads, I'll let him keep on doing that. I'll be happy just to be able to call myself a world champion."
He might also try out a new skateboard, like the kid next door he used to be.
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