Aaron Cruden made a shock return to the NPC

Aaron Cruden made a shock return to the NPC

On Saturday, Aaron Cruden stepped off the plane from a family holiday in Bali. On Sunday, he stepped onto the FMG Stadium Waikato turf for a shock return to NPC rugby.

Earlier in the week Waikato coach Ross Filipo had exchanged texts with the sun-soaking 34-year-old to confirm there was no U-turn on his thinking after the former All Blacks first-five accepted an SOS call from his former Chiefs team-mate.

After newly-recruited Josh Ioane had broken his arm in the opening-round win over Southland, then, as anticipated, Damian McKenzie and D’Angelo Leuila were confirmed in the All Blacks and Manu Samoa World Cup squads, respectively, the Mooloos’ No 10 stocks consisted of merely 20-year-old Taha Kemara.

With a storm week (three games in nine days) fast approaching, that had Filipo dialling up Cruden, who after three seasons in Japan (two with the Kobelco Kobe Steelers and one with Tokyo Sungoliath) had been back home in Hamilton the past few months.

After asking for a day to mull it over, the now father-of-two was keen, but only after the locked-in overseas holiday with wife Grace and children Emilia (4) and Cooper (2).

That was good enough for Filipo, and after Kemara had to play 80 minutes in each of the three storm-week losses, there was at least some decent backup on offer against Counties Manukau on Sunday, when Cruden entered the game in the 59th minute.

And, in what was a first NPC outing in seven years – having notched 33 appearances for the Turbos between 2008 and 2016 – the 50-test playmaker looked every bit the accomplished figure on Mooloos debut, getting plenty of touches in guiding the hosts to an important 37-15 win.

More remarkably, that was all done with not even a single team training under his belt. Instead, assistant coach Dwayne Sweeney had sent a list of plays to the holidaying Cruden to take a squiz at.

There were some thoughts amongst the backline that others may well have to be the ones stepping up and calling the moves. Instead, come fulltime they were blown away at how Cruden seamlessly slipped in and easily ran the show.

“It highlights to the rest of our players a great example of professionalism,” Filipo said.

“It’s just like riding a bike, I guess, for someone like him... he’s a world-class individual.”

Filipo also defended his decision to call on a veteran to fill the void as opposed to using it as an opportunity to promote a promising playmaker from within the region.

“We felt like we needed an experienced 10 to pair with Taha, because we really want to support Taha through his development, and we’re committed to Taha long-term,” he said.

“So, for our team, and the balance we’re looking for, it just didn’t seem right to get a young 10 in with another young 10.”

Just having Cruden around the squad would add plenty of value, Filipo noted, with the coach also not willing to just see him as a bench man, but someone who may well even start games in the back half of the campaign.

As for the man himself after his surprise comeback cameo?

“I was certainly happy it was only 20 minutes out there today, but it was good fun,” Cruden assessed, having caught his breath, then signed autographs and posed for selfies, in this new red, yellow and black attire.

“I’m still a proud Manawatū man, but this opportunity was more due to circumstance – the fact that we live here in Hamilton and obviously my relationship with Floss [Filipo], helping out an old friend.

“Obviously there’s a lot of young talent coming through and there’s a few wily old veterans sprinkled within each team.

“I remember coming in as a young player and it was the veterans that take you under their wing and just sort of give back. So I guess it’s my opportunity to pay it forward a little bit now in this environment, and just enjoy it as much as I can.”

What, then, with his Japan stint up, of a gig in 2024? A return to Super Rugby? Anywhere else overseas.

“I don’t know, to be fair... I’m not actively looking right now... not looking too far ahead, we’ll just see what comes,” Cruden said.

If it’s not a playing contract next year, though, there could be every chance of a coaching one, mind you.

“If you’d asked me early on in my career, I probably would have said no to coaching, but now I’m getting closer to the end of it, I’m thinking it could be a potential avenue I want to explore,” he said.

What does the coach himself reckon?

“He’d be a bloody good coach,” Filipo said. “He knows the game. I’m sure he’d approach it with the same professionalism that he does his playing days.”

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