Filling in for one of the best out-halves the game has ever seen must be daunting. Yet injuries to Dan Carter have offered up stupendous opportunities for his understudies in recent years.
There is a film in the pipeline surrounding the Stephen Donald penalty that finally ended years of World Cup heartbreak for New Zealand two years ago.
The subject of The Kick was actually third choice on that occasion but an injury to Aaron Cruden 30 minutes into the final gave the previously ridiculed Chiefs 10 his shot at redemption.
Yesterday, it was Cruden who had sporting immortality in his grasp. A conversion attempt wide on the right after Ryan Crotty’s try in added time had brought the sides level. Kick it and the All Blacks achieve perfection.
Miss and a draw is as good as a loss — which is pretty much how it was feeling for their opponents too. That is, unless the Irish encroach and you get a second chance.
“When I hit (the first one) I thought I hit it pretty well but then I saw it drifting to the right,” smiled Cruden. “Luckily I got another opportunity and was stoked, it went through the post.
“I just wanted to stay process-focussed, get into my rhythm as a kicker, strike the ball and I was able to do that and was pretty happy to see the flags go up from the touch judges.”
Was it the biggest kick of his life? “I’d say so, yeah.”
Some things just don’t need expansion. Of course it was, and he just looks at his inquisitor, beaming.
But here’s the thing. How do you feel when you know that? When you’re aware of the enormity of the situation, what’s at stake? When it’s all on you?
Jonathan Sexton felt that burden about eight minutes earlier but saw his attempt at perpetuity slide the wrong side of the posts.
Remarkably, the bond between kickers is apparently so strong that Cruden felt a pang of sorrow for his counterpart.
“It would have been a tough ask if they were able to kick that. Johnny Sexton was kicking well all day and being a kicker I felt for him at that moment but at the same time, we were still in with a sniff.
“With 30 seconds to go, we were able to get a penalty, which was pretty crucial. The boys tapped, went quickly and we just stayed to our game-plan. We were able to identify space down that left-hand side to get over in the corner.
“I was just stoked (the conversion) went through the posts but there was a lot of work went through previous to that.”
In the end, it took “a lot of ticker” to shake off those pesky Irish. So good were Joe Schmidt’s crew that Cruden admitted to thinking that a different type of history might occur — a first defeat for the All Blacks to the men in green.
“Yeah, those moments do creep into your mind but the good thing about this team is we do a lot of work on the mental side of rugby and we know we’re going to have our moments, so as long as we stay in the present, things will start to turn our way.
“We have to give full credit to the Irish. They outplayed us for 70 minutes. We wanted to put in a quality performance to finish the tour and that probably wasn’t it but I think the character showed in the team. 12 months ago we were in a similar position and we folded. This year we were able to fight back and just show that heart that lives under the silver fern on the black jersey and were able to pull through.”
That led to “mixed emotions” in the dressing room. Yet it confirms that they are stronger than this time last year. The scary thing is that despite having achieved perfection, there might be more in the tank.
“We have a lot of self-belief in this team, a lot of talent. We know if we’re able to hang into the fight, the momentum will start to turn, which it did. It took us a long time to wrestle the momentum off the Irish. They really beat us to the punch for a lot of the game but staying true to our systems, we were able to get over the line.
“There’s always more to come. As you can see, a lot of teams are starting to up their game, starting to figure out what we’re trying to do so we have to make sure our feet keep grounded but still always strive for that excellence.”
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