Cruden ready to face his next challenge
By Karen Bond
Impossible is nothing – dream big! A simple phrase that has been stuck on the wall of New Zealand’s team room at their hotel in Tokyo as they prepare to face Australia in the first IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 semi final on Wednesday.
The ultimate dream is to ensure that the trophy remains in New Zealand’s hands, the new-look Baby Blacks hoping to follow in the footsteps of the more experienced squad which cruised to the inaugural title in Wales last year with no side getting within 25 points of them.
The phrase is also one which could take on extra significance for captain Aaron Cruden, the fly half having already realised one dream by pulling on the famous jersey for the first time and for whom lifting the coveted trophy on 21 June would cap a year of contrasting emotions.
For Cruden, the prospect of playing for, let alone captaining, New Zealand Under 20s at this Championship was the furthest thing from his mind just under a year ago when his doctor dropped the bombshell that he had testicular cancer and then that it had spread to his lungs.
Fortunately it was only a few spots that showed up on his lungs, but it still meant he had to undergo a nine-week cycle of chemotherapy. Had he not returned to see his doctor in July after being given the all clear at an earlier consultation then a later diagnosis would surely have had more devastating consequences.
To receive such news at any time, let alone when his fledgling rugby career seemed just to be taking off, was a bitter pill for Cruden and his family to swallow, but one that he now candidly relates with a maturity way beyond his 20 years.
“It was pretty scary,” recalled Cruden, who remarkably starred for Manawatu - the club his father Stu captained - in a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Auckland at Eden Park just days after the getting the diagnosis.
“I went to my GP in January last year and told him of some concerns I had and he ran a few things and said there was nothing wrong. I went back to him in July and told him it [a lump] was still there and I would like to go for an ultrasound, he got that sorted and August was sort of when I got the bad news.
“All the sort of questions like why me, what have I done, rushed through my mind. At this age, I didn’t really know what to think, but the doctors and all the medical staff that I dealt with were really good, they explained that it, testicular cancer, was becoming more common with men aged 18 to 35.
“But it is still bloody hard to hear that sort of news.
“Everything did take a back step, rugby I didn’t even think about after I got diagnosed. I went on a nine-week cycle of chemotherapy and came through that pretty well I’d have to say, the support of my family and friends definitely helped with that.
Gaining strength from others
“I got the all clear in November of last year and they told me to sort of ease back into training, but once I heard the all clear there was a green light for me and I was just straight back into it. I kind of paid for it a little bit, I got a bit tired and stressed at times, but that was definitely one of the happiest days of my life to be told that you are all clear of cancer.”
The huge grin that spreads across his face and the youthful exuberance with which he threw himself back into training is a reminder of his age and the remarkable similarities of another promising New Zealand player who also had his life turned upside down by serious health issues.
Robert Fruean had starred for New Zealand at the IRB Under 19 World Championship 2007 in Belfast and was duly named IRB U19 Player of the Year, but just as he had forced his way into the Wellington training squad he fell ill, contracting rheumatic fever which caused serious heart complications.
He needed open heart surgery and a pigskin value to replace his own damaged one, the only option if he was to realise his dream of playing rugby again, and after a long recovery Fruean made his Super 14 debut earlier this year and has since been named in the Junior All Blacks squad for the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup in Fiji this month.
“I played a bit of age group stuff with Rob and he is a fantastic player and when I heard about his news my heart went out to him,” explained Cruden. “Then I heard that he’s been given the all clear now as well, so that is fantastic.
“But definitely stories like that about people who overcome trials and tribulations, even people like Lance Armstrong. I read his book while I was in hospital so I was able to gain a lot of strength from stories like that.
Live life to the fullest
“News like that is very hard to take and the way you come through it, there are two options you can look at, one is why me and go into a shell and give up or there is the fight until the end attitude and that is the attitude I took and I bet Rob did as well.
“You just have to remain positive in all assets of life and that is what got me through.
“It made me mature a lot quicker than I thought I’d have to, but that can’t be a bad thing! It puts things into perspectives that you can’t take life for granted, you just have to live every day to its fullest and get the most out of life.”
Taking things for granted is not something Cruden and his teammates have done in Japan thus far, even if in the eyes of many they were handed the favourites tag simply because they were defending champions. The reality is that this is a completely different squad with only Zac Guildford still eligible from last year’s squad.
In the days leading up to the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009, Cruden summed this up when he cast aside talk of title favourites or pressure on the squad to succeed, insisting that they wanted “to create our own path and be judged for what we do and not what was done last year”.
The road to the semi finals has been far from smooth with a 75-0 opening victory over Uruguay in Nagoya followed by two tough Pool A encounters with Ireland and Argentina yielding 17-0 and 48-9 wins – the latter only looking so convincing after a seven-try performance in the second half last Saturday.
Switched on from the whistle
“Rens [coach Dave Rennie] told us before we left New Zealand that it would be Test match intensity and the boys really got that in those two games. Ireland played extremely well and we didn’t adapt well enough and were only able to scrap away with a 17-0 win,” explained Cruden, who sat out the Argentina victory.
“Then Argentina, they started extremely well, applied pressure, got points when they were in our half and then in the second half we just clicked and were able to run away with it. Maybe [it was something Rennie said at half time] I don’t know, I just think the boys became more urgent in the second half.
“We knew we were in a dog fight at half time in both games and we really had to perform, our backs were against the wall and we came out of it on the right side, that is a positive but we really need to start from that first whistle against Australia or we are going to be caught napping.
“We have seen a little bit of their [Australia] footage and they have looked pretty sharp, so we will need to start from that first whistle and anything less than 100 percent isn’t going to be enough on Wednesday night. The match will be physical, with the Trans Tasman rivalry there will be nothing to lose, no holds barred, everyone will be up for it and it will be a very good test.
“We have seen glimpses I think [of what this New Zealand side is capable of]. We were not at our best for most of the three games, there is a lot of room for improvement in all areas and we have been working hard at those and come Wednesday night we need to have them right.”