The story would not look out of place in a movie script – a 22-year-old swaps his skateboard and a planned trip to Disneyland to step up and help his country win the Rugby World Cup on home soil for the first time since before he was born.
But this was no Hollywood blockbuster, rather the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by Aaron Cruden after his call-up to replace injured All Blacks talisman Dan Carter as Rugby World Cup 2011 entered the knockout stages last October.
Cruden had failed to make the 30-man squad and had all but given up hope he would play on rugby’s greatest stage in his own backyard, getting his fix of the action as a fan in the stands or watching on TV with his mates.
Then came the news that New Zealanders had dreaded, Carter’s tournament was over, prompting Cruden’s phone to ring and his holiday plans to be thrown on the backburner as he hot-footed it to join up with the squad.
“I think the whole buzz around New Zealand at that time was pretty special and for the spectators and fans it was fantastic ... I got right amongst it in the early rounds,” Cruden told Total Rugby Radio earlier this year. “Then on the flip side of that, getting called in and actually getting a chance to play at a World Cup.
“I was sort of expecting if there were going to be injuries or things it might happen earlier in the tournament. As the tournament progressed I started to think that it probably wasn’t going to happen and I even started to book a holiday. The day after I booked the holiday to America I got the call to say Dan had been injured and I would be coming into camp.
“It was a pretty surreal feeling and a lot of emotions. Obviously you never want to see another player get injured and to hear Dan was struck down with injury was devastating, but then I suppose for me it was something I had dreamt off since I was a young boy so I was stoked to get that opportunity as well.”
A nation held its breath, wondering if Cruden could handle the pressure and weight of expectation on the All Blacks to end a 24-year wait for a second title. Cruden, and those who know him, never doubted his ability or mental strength to help deliver the Webb Ellis Cup that all New Zealand craved.
The pressure of replacing the world’s best fly half was huge, but Cruden had a simple philosophy to deal with it. “I tried not to look at it as pressure; I tried to just sort of park it on the backburners a little bit. I just tried not to think about it too much and just go out there and if I got a chance to play just be Aaron Cruden. Not try to be Dan Carter and do everything he does, just go out there, play my natural game and give it my best. I think I went out there and did that.”
Cruden’s opportunity came off the bench in the quarter final with Argentina when Colin Slade was forced off injured, a moment he remembers felt “surreal” and resulted in “a lot of butterflies in the stomach”, all of which eased when he ran on and senior players just told him to “enjoy the occasion and have fun.”
The No.10 jersey now his, Cruden grew into the role, guiding New Zealand past rivals Australia in the semi finals to the praise of media around the world, promoting comments such as ‘King Cruden’ and ‘The Crudenator’, while t-shirts sprang up proclaiming ‘Aaron Cruden is the new Dan Carter’ and his surname became the anagram ‘Carter ruled unfit didn’t even notice’.
Only one hurdle remained for the All Blacks, their final opponents France who they had already beaten 37-17 in the pool stages, and Cruden remembers only too well the emotions he experienced in a “really special week” as the whole country got behind their team.
“It is pretty surreal to hear the national anthem and you hear the whole crowd at Eden Park stand up and sing it in unison with you and you sort of know that there is another four million odd New Zealanders at home watching on telly and doing exactly the same.
“You hear a lot of people talk about the cliché where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and everything like that and I think that is really one of those moments ... just a whole lot of emotions rolling around, excitement and nerves and to know that a whole country is unison and really all striving for that one goal was pretty amazing.”
Then, in another twist worthy of that Hollywood script, Cruden would himself be forced off in the 34th minute with a knee injury, the curse of the All Black fly half striking again when New Zealand led 5-0. A fact Cruden admits that, despite the pain, he couldn’t help "giggle" about.
“I was really gutted, obviously getting injured in a World Cup final and when I was sitting on the bench and reflecting on it I thought I had to have a little bit of a giggle at the same time, I mean it’s not often you get struck down by injury in the same position three times at one tournament!
“To have that happen was pretty devastating personally that I couldn’t see out the Final, but by the time the final whistle went and I looked at the scoreboard and saw that we were ahead all that sort of disappointment had gone because we had won the World Cup and finally 24 years of waiting was over and we were able to celebrate as a team and as a country.”
Something to cherish
It is perhaps not surprising, given his rollercoaster ride, that the nine-times capped Cruden finds it all still a bit of a blur and hard to put into words what it means to have become a Rugby World Cup winner before his 23rd birthday.
“It is something that not a lot of people get to experience throughout the whole world. Something that I have dreamt about since I was a young fella kicking a ball around and to have that come true just means the world to me.
“No-one can ever take that away so it was something very special.
“It was a bit of rollercoaster, that is a pretty fair indication of those three weeks but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. It was just an amazing experience and something that I will remember forever and cherish forever.”
Cruden’s story was already a remarkable one, the fly half having been diagnosed with testicular cancer at 19 and, after beating that, captained his country’s Under 20 side to the IRB Junior World Championship 2009 title in Japan under his mentor Dave Rennie.
His performances in the defeats of Australia and England in the semi final and title decider respectively marked him out as a potential long-term successor to Carter, not to mention saw him honoured as the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2009.
And while he is now a RWC winner, Cruden has not forgotten his time at JWC 2009.
“Two years earlier I was celebrating a Junior World Cup title with New Zealand in Japan and riding that high and that was an amazing achievement, something I will never forget as well.
“I think that was my first New Zealand jersey, that Under 20s jersey, and that tournament and title really means a lot to me.
“The JWC just gave me a real taste of it all, the whole international scene and sort of what it really takes to be able to back up week in, week out and game after game to make sure you are peaking every time you hit the field to give yourselves the best chance at winning."
Cruden, who has helped the Chiefs to the top of the Super Rugby standings this year under Rennie, was one of 49 players to play at RWC 2011 after graduating from the Junior World Championship, reiterating the value of the Under 20 tournament.
“I think it proves that the pathway works (from JWC to the Test arena). There is a lot of great rugby players all around the world and I think that Under 20 tournament is a great pathway to be able to apply your trade and sort of show your wares on the international stage and then you never know what can happen.
“For me, obviously, a couple of years later I was in the big one, the Rugby World Cup, and it was a total dream come true and I think I have the Junior World Cup to thank for that.”