Aaron Cruden, author of Beautifully Built Tries

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru

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    In the late forties, a boy was born in the desert. His name was Mohed. He lost both parents as an infant; his mother passed away, and his father abandoned him.

    Forbidden to attend school in Syria by his grandmother, he disobeyed, excelled, and won a bursary in France (which required him to first learn French) all the way to doctorate level, with an interest in physics and mathematics.

    When the former IRB Junior Player of the Year and 50-cap All Black playmaker Aaron Cruden puts on his blue-and-white jersey to play for Top 14 leader Montpellier, the name on the front is Altrad. Mohed’s surname. It also adorns the state-of-the-art Altrad stadium.

    The Bedouin billionaire outcast owns a construction supply business so big, his rugby club is just a hobby. An all-consuming avocation.

    Altrad has assembled a cast of talented misfits with an edge. Surly prop-bodied back Frans Steyn has dominated several matches this season. Newly offloading Bismarck du Plessis is the villainous darling of the Montpelliérains. The mysterious Mogg, big-booted Jesse that is, plies his trade here in the Occitan, with his mate Joe Tomane.

    Altrad has three Saffa locks averaging 130kg, a couple of Georgian props who resemble nightmares, the gargantuan Nemani Nadolo at left wing, former police constable Timoci Nagusa on the right, and controversial ham-haunched Louis Picamoles as skipper of this piratical crew. To perfect his “family of orphans,” he has the most unfairly maligned 70+ capped scrumhalf in history, the quiet assassin Ruan Pienaar, bulleting his precise passes and kicks to ignite Cruden’s backline.

    The taciturn Vern Cotter steers this ship of rugby refugees: he must be overjoyed to have a half-centurion All Black at the helm.

    The Manawatu playmaker with the reconstructed knee is easily the smallest back in the squad: playing next to another IRB Junior Player of the Year, the beefy Bok Jan Serfontein, who feeds behemoths Steyn and Nadolo, Cruden looks forever in mortal danger on the pitch. At five foot nine or so, and weighing in at 82 kg fully clothed, he has always tried to find the creases.

    He’s forever faced adversity. Diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 19, just as he left Palmerston North High School, Cruden lost one testicle and went through chemotherapy, and is thankfully still in remission. Injuries gutted his chances at both 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

    Aaron Cruden, All Blacks' replacement flyhalf

    One thing the Hurricane-turned-Chief flyhalf doesn’t have to worry about at Montpellier is kicking from the tee. He drops at restarts, but with marksmen Pienaar, the metronomic Benoit Paillaugue, long-bomber Mogg, and ice-cool Steyn in the side, Cruden can just relax and try to build tries.

    The Top 14 awards the Trophee Gedimat each month to the “best built try.” The focus is on the movement, the collective action, the architecture of the try. The winner receives a sculpture by Jean-Pierre Rives, who all oldtimers will remember as the storming undersized flanker with blood streaming into his long blonde hair as he battled manfully for the French Test team.

    Cruden won this award for September of 2017 for a 31-second, 12-pass sequence ending with his superb millimetre-precise pass to the try-scorer.

    With lofty expectations come strident demands. But last night as I chatted with the locals in the bar, the bistro, and the stands in Montpellier, it was obvious Cruden is vying with Bismarck to be Most Popular Foreigner.

    Why? Besides his humble persona and livewire try-creation, Cruden is a proven winner. Is there an All Black with a better winning percentage as a starter?

    Bismarck may have more billboards, I noticed, as I took an Uber to the rather isolated but impressive stadium; but Cruden has the team on top of the league.

    We should note the Top 14 owns many of rugby’s best forwards and fliers, but it is not a great flyhalf league. Mike Harris started at ten for a losing Lyon last night. Powerhouse Toulon has the up-and-down Francois Trinh-Duc pulling the strings. Dan Carter is phoning it in, as is Morne Steyn, Ryan Lamb, and Camille Lopez. Maybe the brightest new playmaker talent this season is at Agen, where the Reds emigre Jake McIntyre is going well.

    In town to take on number one Cruden and Company were 11th-ranked Stade Francais, who do have a well-regarded flyhalf, Jules Plisson.

    Sergio Parisse was crocked, which disappointed me, but in his place was big lump Willem Alberts! On a cold night, with a wet field, you wouldn’t want to spend eighty minutes tackling the Bone Collector, who still looks just as imposing as ever.

    Yet a few minutes after a suspiciously young Belorussian bartender had poured me a half-dozen beers, and I had unwieldily climbed the steep steps to row seven of the perfectly-sized stands (14,700 capacity and not a bad seat anywhere), there was Cruden ‘tackling’ Alberts, who picked up from a nice scrum.

    Yes, it was more of a “provide a speed bump and hope Serfontein helps” tackle, but it worked.

    Stade Francais, in their hot pink strip, dominated the first half, with rolling sorties led by Alberts and the Australian-French winger Marvin O’Connor, who stunned his former fans to score a fine early try.

    It was Cruden who led the home side back, with fewer chances, but greater skill. He scored a balletic try himself after twenty minutes, unlocking the defence with an almost slow-motion show-and-go.

    His combination with Serfontein has gelled nicely; I could hear his instructions to the backline were in clear Kiwi.

    Picamoles crashed over at halftime to own an unlikely 14-13 lead (Plisson nailed two penalties to go with the converted early try).

    I stuck with my 5:1 ratio of beer-to-fries at halftime, so the second half is a wee bit blurry, but it was clear the home side had more depth. Bismarck owned the tight exchanges and his offload to set a mad rampaging Nadolo free at the end gave the winners a deserved 28-16 bonus point win.

    The Top 14 awards winners a bonus point if they win by three tries or more.

    Cruden was surely the man of this match; he looks to be enjoying his rugby in the South of France, adopted by the orphan owner who has built something beautiful for the players in search of rejuvenation.

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    The Crowd Says (77)

    • January 8th 2018 @ 7:25am
      Taylorman said | January 8th 2018 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      Very nice Harry, as though I was there, I can taste the beer and I dont have to do much to imagine Cruden running rings.

      Hes still AB start 10 quality so anything less would be disappointing.

      Dont think youll be writing something similar about Owen Farrell for some reason?

      Oh by the way, were any French players on the field?

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 7:53am
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 7:53am | ! Report

        Thanks, T-Man!

        Montpellier had 8 Frenchman, I think; Paris (as they call Stade Francais) had a few more.

        • January 11th 2018 @ 7:52am
          FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:52am | ! Report

          Nice article, Harry. Whatever we think about the state of French rugby the top 14 is a spectacle and an experience.

          • Roar Guru

            January 11th 2018 @ 8:54am
            Harry Jones said | January 11th 2018 @ 8:54am | ! Report

            It certainly is!

            The drums, the horns, the murmurs, the smell of the hot food, the crazy stadia …

      • January 8th 2018 @ 9:12pm
        FunBus said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:12pm | ! Report

        Farrell crafted two beautiful tries yesterday, T-Man – but, of course, you wouldn’t know that.

        • Roar Guru

          January 8th 2018 @ 9:20pm
          Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:20pm | ! Report

          Schalk Burger scored and “won” a yellow card penalty try, too!

          Sarries never dull.

          Do you like Owen at 10 or 12 better?

          Ford or Farrell?

          Aviva and Pro14 stocked w real 10s.

          • Roar Guru

            January 8th 2018 @ 9:24pm
            Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:24pm | ! Report

            25% of the starters in Wasps v Sarries were Saffas…

            • January 9th 2018 @ 7:12am
              taylorman said | January 9th 2018 @ 7:12am | ! Report

              Gone down has it, so much for the top English sides huh? 🙂

          • January 11th 2018 @ 7:32am
            FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:32am | ! Report

            I like Farrell at 10. The issue for Jones is that he adores Ford but Farrell is first name on the team-sheet. It’s one of the biggest questions he faces. He’s on record as saying that he wants more bulk in the backs. Teo and, maybe, Tuilagi if he stays fit, fit the bill, but then he’s got to choose between Ford and Farrell and ditch the two playmaker set-up.
            Eddie’s got a decision to make.

        • January 9th 2018 @ 7:14am
          taylorman said | January 9th 2018 @ 7:14am | ! Report

          Yeah I did actually, but you wouldnt know that, and I know I’m right. I suppose with so many foreigners around him his games bound to lift.

          • January 11th 2018 @ 7:48am
            FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:48am | ! Report

            Well, all I can say T-Man is that England sent 16 players on the Lion’s tour, had a lot of injuries, called up 6 players from the under-20s and still won 2-0 in Argentina.
            The quality of the Aviva is going up every year, the average age of the England squad is actually going down, and England could probably field three competitive international teams. So sneer away, I’m very happy at the moment.

            • Roar Guru

              January 11th 2018 @ 8:56am
              Harry Jones said | January 11th 2018 @ 8:56am | ! Report

              I’m hoping to go see a Bath or Sale game, soon. Or the Wasps!

              • January 11th 2018 @ 10:36am
                FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 10:36am | ! Report

                All attractive to watch, although I think Saracens are as well, despite their rep. Make sure it doesn’t coincide with the 6 Nations, Harry, or a lot of players will be missing. Wasps are also in a major injury crisis at the moment and Bath are missing virtually their entire pack. Their first choice backrow is Louw, Faletau and Underhill – tasty but all currently out.
                Leicester, surprisingly, can also be attractive to watch. Their back line is Youngs, Ford, Toomua, Tuilagi, May, Veainu, and Malouf.

              • Roar Guru

                January 11th 2018 @ 6:12pm
                Harry Jones said | January 11th 2018 @ 6:12pm | ! Report

                I would like to see the grounds. It’s nice to see a real town pitch.

              • January 11th 2018 @ 9:18pm
                FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 9:18pm | ! Report

                Pick Bath, then Harry. Don’t know if you’ve ever been but the town is beautiful and it’s a small, homely stadium right in the centre. Because it’s so small tickets can be tough to get, though.

                Wasps play on a Championship football ground. Nice stadium, but not that ‘rugby’ feel to it. Sale is a bit ‘far north’ if you’re based around London, and for some reason they tend to like to play on freezing Friday nights.

              • January 13th 2018 @ 5:47am
                taylorman said | January 13th 2018 @ 5:47am | ! Report

                Yes, great to see our All Blacks herded off to all these magnificent stadia to be watched by even less people.

        • January 9th 2018 @ 6:26pm
          Jacko said | January 9th 2018 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

          Thats funny Funbus….This article is about Cruden but hey…write 1 about Farrell if you like and we can all comment about other players on it.

          • January 10th 2018 @ 8:15am
            taylorman said | January 10th 2018 @ 8:15am | ! Report

            He did a couple of good passes that lead to tries, one after getting a bit lost, going back the other way, firing a pass over some wanna be interceptors, then someone kind of dropped it but it got picked up on the wing and in. Bit of an odd one but Farrell did well to create something out of nothing, something hes accused of not doing very well.

          • January 11th 2018 @ 7:43am
            FunBus said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:43am | ! Report

            I was responding to T-man’s comment about……Farrell, Jacko. It’s not me that’s obsessed

    • Columnist

      January 8th 2018 @ 8:02am
      Geoff Parkes said | January 8th 2018 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      A pleasant surprise Harry – nice write-up missing only a precis of the referee and his peculiar, prancing gait.
      And an account of the erotically charged train trip afterwards…

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 8:21am
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 8:21am | ! Report

        Thanks, GP!

        Yes. It is true. Referee Julien Castaignede had an odd gait. Almost as if he had, as the French might say, a « pôle dans le cul. »

        Trains are inherently erotic.

    • January 8th 2018 @ 8:29am
      Playerfromwayback said | January 8th 2018 @ 8:29am | ! Report

      Nice piece Harry,
      As beautifully constructed as a Cruden meat pie! Shame we don’t still have him in the All Black mix.

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 4:34pm
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

        Thanks, Player!

        Glad you enjoyed the craftsmanship.

    • Roar Guru

      January 8th 2018 @ 8:49am
      Machooka said | January 8th 2018 @ 8:49am | ! Report

      Very tasty Harry… croutons, croissants and Cruden.

      And possibly a little train-spotting… oui!?!

      How outrageously French thingy of you hairy type man 😉

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 4:35pm
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 4:35pm | ! Report

        Aaron Crouton!
        Word salade!

    • January 8th 2018 @ 9:19am
      Rugby Tragic said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report

      Well composed article Harry, thank you … Small of stature, but big of heart Cruden is, by tackling the big boys. His replacement at No 10 for the Chiefs, Macca, has similar traits however, I think the latter has a long way to go to prove he is able to control and run a game that Cruden had mastered. Great vision.

      An interesting article posted on Stuff about cancer survivors among sports men and women in NZ. For those who may be interested, a link follows .. https://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/100378125/exall-blacks-among-new-zealand-sports-cancer-survivors

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 4:36pm
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 4:36pm | ! Report

        Yes, I think Cruden sees the field better than almost any small guy. Doesn’t lock in; keeps the play alive

    • January 8th 2018 @ 9:27am
      Highlander said | January 8th 2018 @ 9:27am | ! Report

      Nice Harry – well written

      I suspect if Cruds had remained in NZ he may well have displaced the World Rugby player of the year from the starting XV before the end of last season.

      • January 8th 2018 @ 1:34pm
        taylorman said | January 8th 2018 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

        Yes agree, that was the AB faux pas of the year. Cruden should have started there after the first test switch when Ben Smith went down. Hansen thought about it then decided he wanted Barrett to steer the ship.

        He got that wrong.

        • January 8th 2018 @ 1:59pm
          Highlander said | January 8th 2018 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

          HNY T-Man

          You make an excellent point, so many times on these boards we see team selection suggestions that look more like fantasy football selections than serious rugby XV’s, and that selection balance is normally where Hansen and Crew do so well.
          So many of the player 1 vs player 2 discussions could be rendered moot when considered in the context on the wider team benefit rather than who is the ‘better’ player.

          But in losing Bender we lost a large measure of both balance and control, having AC at 10 would have offset that loss much better than the skillful but less controlled Barrett the Elder.

          • January 8th 2018 @ 2:31pm
            taylorman said | January 8th 2018 @ 2:31pm | ! Report

            Yes Hansen did ask fans to get off Barretts back a bit after the second test but…there was a reason they were on it.

            Im sure if he reviews that decision he’ll find it was the wrong one. Obviously hindsight is king but its not often he gets something like that wrong.

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2018 @ 4:37pm
        Harry Jones said | January 8th 2018 @ 4:37pm | ! Report

        Interesting question, that.

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