Dan Carter has given Aaron Cruden his stamp of approval ahead of the All Blacks’ World Cup final meeting with France on Sunday.
A torn groin ligament a month ago ended Carter’s tournament, eliciting widespread fear that the Blacks’ ambitions of capturing the title would be seriously undermined. Carter’s replacement, Colin Slade, then sustained a similar injury, forcing the selectors to send an SOS to Cruden.
The 21-year-old delivered a mature and eye-catching performance against Australia in the semi-final. Carter was liberal in his praise of the youngster. ‘I’ve been really impressed with Aaron. He’s been involved with the team all season, he’s just slotted in nicely and he’s making the most of his opportunity, which is awesome,’ Carter said.
Carter continues to work closely with the halfbacks in the squad and reserved plaudits for scrumhalf Piri Weepu, who has been a standout performer at the tournament. Weepu has shouldered more leadership responsibility in Carter’s absence, as well as when captain Richie McCaw has been unavailable through injury.
‘Piri’s really matured and stepped into the leadership role which has been fantastic because there’s a lot of young players around, with Aaron (Cruden) coming into the side, and Piri’s taken a lot of pressure off him,’ he said, before extolling McCaw’s value.
‘He’s [McCaw] been frustrated with injury and not being able to train but I think his leadership and captaincy has grown to a new level this World Cup and that sort of motivation has rubbed off on the guys.’
The Blacks are heavily favoured to beat France, who’ve lost two pool games and performed poorly in the semi-final, despite having a man advantage for three quarters of the match. However, they are acutely aware of France’s capacity for periods of brilliance, having suffered at their hands in this regard more times than they would care to remember.
‘They’re our arch nemesis at World Cup time and we all know the past that we’ve had with the French,’ Carter said. ‘They’re such a dangerous side, especially when their backs are against the wall and having a lot of doubters, that’s when they step up and they’ve shown that in 2007 and also in 1999.
‘We have to expect the unexpected. The French are the best at doing something to surprise us so the guys realise that we’re in for a huge challenge. At World Cups teams come out and have heroic performances.’
Carter pointed to France’s loose trio as being their primary threat on attack, but also acknowledged their scrums as a weapon they would have to nullify. He noted that flyhalf Morgan Parra was dangerous when allowed to dictate the flow and tempo of the Test, citing slow ruck ball as a means of diluting his influence.
Carter said being involved with the side daily has helped ease the frustration of of not being able to compete, but added that watching from the stands takes some getting used to. ‘It’s not too bad during the week, but having to watch the last two games, the weekend’s are probably the toughest times for me, when I’m sitting there watching the game I get extremely nervous. I’m not a very good spectator,’ he said.
‘That’s when it’s really tough, when I see the guys out on the field because I have a sense of no control. I’m so used to being out there and trying to make a difference on the field. That’s probably the toughest time, when I have to sit there and watch them. It’s just how passionate I am. I just want the boys to win so badly like the rest of us. Obviously I can’t play so I’m going to be their number one supporter.’
Asked about his future beyond the World Cup and if he has another tournament in the tank, the 29-year-old said: ‘I’ve re-signed in New Zealand for four years, so that’s where my immediate future is starting next season. To be honest I haven’t thought too much about that, I’m just focused on helping this team in whatever way I can and concentrating on my rehab.
‘From my experience, four years is a long time and a lot can happen in that time so I don’t want to sit here and say I’ll still be around for another four years because to be honest I’m not sure.’