Twelve months ago Aaron Cruden was preparing to face Ireland in
the Baby Blacks' second match at the IRB Junior World
Championship in Japan. Fast forward to today and the fly half has
just been named as a replacement for the All Blacks' test with
Ireland this weekend.
Cruden's vision, composure and inspirational leadership had been clearly evident as he led the Baby Blacks to the Junior World Championship title and saw him recognised as the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2009 after the final.
The success also thrust his name into the spotlight as a potential answer to the question on the lips of many New Zealanders, who could provide a back up to All Black star Dan Carter in the No.10 jersey after seeing Stephen Donald and Mike Delaney fail to ease concerns.
All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith said Cruden "ticked all the boxes" when the 21-year-old was named in the squad for this month's tests against Ireland and Wales, becoming his province Manawatu's first call up since Christian Cullen back in 1996.
Cruden, though, is not a player to get carried away with all the hype and talk of him being a back up to Carter at next year's Rugby World Cup on home soil and his successor in the long-term, even if playing for the All Blacks has long been a dream of his.
An unbelievable dream
"Of course I have goals to be an All Black and make it all the way in rugby in New Zealand," Cruden insisted last month when Total Rugby Radio caught up with him to look back at the Junior World Championship in Japan.
"But you just have to work hard, get your head down and do well for the team you are playing for. That is what I am focused on at the moment, I want to continue to enjoy my rugby and that is why I play it, just to have fun.
"There have been a few whispers and a few things said, but I tend not to listen to the media and keep my head down and keep focused and stay out of all that stuff. I have my own expectations and am my own harshest critic.
"Any World Cup is special, but to have one in your own country is fantastic. It will be in the back of my mind and if I get to have a crack at that it will be unbelievable, but you have to put your head down, work hard, and anything that comes after that is a bonus."
The Hurricanes pivot has another reason for taking life as it comes, having less than two years ago been hit with the bombshell that he had testicular cancer and scans showed a few spots on his lung, devastating news at any age but even more so at just 19.
As he underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy treatment, the possibility of playing for New Zealand's Under 20s let alone the All Blacks was the furthest thing from his mind, but Cruden tackled his recovery with a steely determination.
Not only did he also overcome a knee injury to first make the Baby Blacks side and then be handed the captaincy by his provincial coach Dave Rennie, but he was a key factor in their success and turned in inspirational performances in the semi final and title decider.
Stoked to be playing
Cruden, though, was just happy to be back out on a rugby field.
"It was a pretty tough time for me before the tournament with the off-field battles. I wasn't really sure, once I got selected I got a couple of injuries and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to attend the tournament," he explained.
"But I kept working hard and had a good rehab programme and by the time I got to the tournament I was just stoked to be out there playing footy again after I had beaten the off-field battles. I felt a little different to how I normally would, I was full of excitement and enthusiasm more than anything.
"Footy is just nice, it is nice to be back out there running around doing what you love with a good group of guys, especially after the battles I had off the field. It was a bit of a release, it is quite hard to explain, but it is just nice to be out there playing again."
A year on from the Junior World Championship and with a season
of Super 14 rugby behind him, Cruden has been given the all-clear
from his specialist and told by him that "everything is going
well at the moment and is pretty confident it will stay that
Cruden is no doubt counting down the days until he pulls on the All Black jersey for the first time, but he has nothing but fond memories of his time with the Baby Blacks at the Junior World Championship in Japan.
"I look back with great pride really," admitted Cruden, who will have his Baby Blacks teammate Zac Guildford for company on the bench on Saturday, the wing having made his All Blacks debut against Wales last November.
"We went over there with a lot of expectation on us from the previous year with the team winning before us and looking back now I am extremely proud of the team to lead them to glory. I think they boys played well in the final and really deserved to win in the end.
"We didn't talk about it [the expectation] too much, we all knew about it as it was in the back of our minds, but we didn't talk about it as a group. We just plodded along and we had our own goals and expectations as a team.
"We went out there to win the tournament which was our own goal and we didn't talk about previous years, but we knew we had a pedigree to live up to and we were all excited about the challenge and I think that is what got us through.
"It is a surreal feeling to hold the trophy up for the best team in the world at that age grade. Words can't really describe it - we were all pretty excited and animated and yeah, I suppose you have to experience the feeling to know what it is like.
"It is a great feeling but it is quite hard to explain."
Cruden was asked by Rennie to talk to this year's Baby
Blacks before they left for Argentina last month, something he was
honoured to do and pass on his own bits of advice as to what to
expect, having sat in their seats a year earlier.
"I just said to go over there and have fun. They will have their own goals which might be different to ours last year, but I just told them, they all play footy because they love it and enjoy it, and that is what they need to go and do but they need to be disciplined and that.
"They need to quickly gel as a team, they are together for a couple of months before they go away, but they are not together for a full season like many teams so it is important they gel together quickly because they will be going into battle together on the field."
Can the 2010 crop preserve New Zealand's unbeaten Junior World Championship record?
"Oh yeah, if they go over there with the right game plans, which I am sure they will, They have a great management team and coaching staff and I think they have the players and ability to go all the way. I wish them well and hopefully they can do it."