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Former All Black and Māori All Black first-five Aaron Cruden (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is returning to New Zealand for next season. Cruden will link up with the Chiefs, the side he won two Super Rugby titles with in 2012 and 2013, after two seasons playing for Montpellier in the French Top 14 competition.
It is a big signing for the Chiefs, who progressed to the playoffs earlier this season despite being hit with a catastrophic injury toll throughout. One of those casualties was Damian McKenzie, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. It is likely he will be ready to go in January for the Super Rugby season opener, which means he and Cruden will form a potentially lethal attacking pair for new coach Warren Gatland.
Cruden is off contract with Montpellier and has signed a deal with Japanese club Kobe Steelers. However, the Japanese domestic season has been altered due to the recent World Cup, and effectively given Cruden the window he needs to make his return to Hamilton and the side he led to Super Rugby glory.
“Aaron is an exceptional player and has been a fantastic leader for our team having co-captained the Chiefs for four seasons,” Chiefs CEO Michael Collins said in a press release this morning,
“He is a great team man who brings a wealth of experience and is greatly valued by his teammates. We are rapt he is returning and we will value the contribution he will make both on and off the field.”
Cruden made his debut for the Chiefs against the Highlanders in 2012, two years after his Super Rugby and All Black debut for the Hurricanes. He looked assured of taking over as the All Blacks’ first choice first-five after the retirement of Dan Carter in 2015, however, an untimely injury the following season gave Beauden Barrett an opportunity to lock down the spot - where he has been ever since, winning two World Rugby Player of the Year titles.
It has meant that Cruden has gone down as one of the great ‘what if’s’ of All Black rugby, however, this latest move means that door remains slightly ajar in 2020. Cruden will theoretically be eligible to play test rugby again in July, so a strong Super Rugby season coupled with a new All Black coaching regime could see him back in the picture.