With Dan Carter set to join a host of other prominent All Blacks looking to follow in the footsteps of captain Richie McCaw by taking a sabbatical between World Cups, the opportunity for a young first-five to establish himself in the Number Ten jersey which for so long has belonged solely to Carter is undeniable.
Things can change very quickly in the world of rugby, and while Colin Slade was the All Blacks’ first choice replacement for Carter when world cup disaster struck the game’s highest ever points-scorer, his star continues to fade, with recurrent injuries preventing him from showing any sort of form or development of his game.
The much-maligned Stephen Donald, who emerged from the wilderness to steer the All Blacks to World Cup glory, has moved off-shore, and part-time fly-half Piri Weepu continues to battle waning enthusiasm and an ever expanding waistline. Although there are several young players emerging on the New Zealand scene at the moment they are unlikely to have come of age enough to join the quest for consecutive World Cups, so the question of who will assume Carter’s role during his absence in 2014, and have the chance to cement their spot as the next cab off the rank ahead of the 2015 tournament, comes down to a two-horse race between the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett and the Chiefs’ Aaron Cruden.
Cruden has the inside running, having briefly joined the side during the World Cup, before injury cut his own involvement short, and, as the more experienced of the two is probably the odds-on favourite. He was the catalyst which ignited an exciting Chiefs backline as they claimed their first Super Rugby title in 2012, in a season which saw the diminutive Manuwatu Fly-half come of age.
Cruden’s style is unquestionably attack-orientated, something which won’t necessarily scare the All Blacks’ coaches, but, looking ahead to 2015 where matches are guaranteed to be tight, tactical affairs, it may be the more conservative approach of Barrett which appeals.
The young Taranaki Number 10 exploded on to the scene in 2011, and grew immensely during his first year in Mark Hammett’s Hurricanes side the following year. Similar in many ways to former All Blacks First-five Andrew Merhtens, Barrett has great vision and a flawless understanding of the game. More so than Cruden his game revolves around directing those around him rather than always looking to create opportunities himself, but he still possesses a turn of pace which allows him to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
While Dan Carter craves the chance to finally snare the World Cup glory which so cruelly alluded him in 2011 the end of his career is undoubtedly in sight, and All Blacks’ fans will watch with interest as both Cruden and Barrett grow and evolve as rugby players, knowing that success in 2015 just may rest on the shoulders of one of these young stars.