AUCKLAND // Within a week, Aaron Cruden has gone from watching the Rugby World Cup at home on television to possibly being the last All Blacks fly-half left standing for the semi-final against Australia.
Dan Carter's groin injury ended his tournament and started Cruden's on October 2, and Colin Slade's groin strain in the 33-10 win over Argentina in the quarter-finals yesterday now has the 22-year-old No 10 poised to face off against the Wallabies.
"It's been pretty surreal, the last week," Cruden said. "To be honest, I don't think it has fully sunk in. A week ago I was watching the games on the couch and now I'm playing in them. Very blessed to be here and hopefully we can keep the momentum going."
With New Zealand trailing 7-6, and the anxiety levels of the hushed almost capacity Eden Park crowd rising as memories of ignominious exits of World Cups past came flooding back, Cruden went on in the 33rd minute to replace Slade.
After an understandably nervous start, Cruden's confidence grew as he made several incisive runs against the tiring Argentina defence. "Running out there, the crowd and everything was pretty overwhelming, but the senior guys really got behind me and told me to play my game," he said. "The guys around me gave me a lot of confidence to play my natural game.
"As the game went on, I started to feel I was able to do that and got the groove of the game."
Cruden's performance was not bad considering he has not played for more than a month, not since his Manawatu club were knocked out of a provincial cup competition. All set to go on holiday, he got the call-up after doing no training other than gym work and playing touch rugby.
He has since been "getting to know the structures again" at training and receiving feedback from senior players, such as Richie McCaw, the captain.
"I take my hat off to him," McCaw said. "He had to learn quick this week. I thought he had a pretty good day."
Even Carter has been happy to assist Cruden.
"He's been around the hotel helping both I and Colin out, and just saying: 'Embrace it, you're in this team for a reason' and we're good enough to be here and test ourselves against the best in the world," Cruden said.