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Cruden in at flyhalf, 3 changes for All Blacks

Updated: October 13, 2011, 18:05


AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) New All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden describes the last two weeks of his life as "an awesome rollercoaster..''

He'll start against Australia in a World Cup semifinal on Sunday, charged with huge responsibility and watched by hundreds of millions around the world. Two weeks ago, he was kicking back at the end of New Zealand's domestic rugby season, doing a little skateboarding and watching All Blacks matches on television.

An injury to New Zealand's star flyhalf Dan Carter earned Cruden a late callup to the All Blacks squad, then the loss of Carter's backup Colin Slade - also to an injured groin - plunged Cruden into New Zealand's quarterfinal against Argentina after only 33 minutes.

A week later he's preparing to play a match he acknowledges at the biggest of his life as one of the key players in an All Blacks team named by coach Graham Henry on Friday. His inclusion is one of three changes from the lineup which started in the 33-10 win over Argentina.

"It's funny how things can change in two weeks,'' Cruden said. "It's a pretty awesome rollercoaster I'm riding at the moment. Hopefully that can continue and we can just prepare well for Sunday so that we know we're ready to go come kickoff time.''

While scrumhalf Piri Weepu will take some of the tactical kicking responsibilities on Sunday, Cruden still faces an immense responsibility to steer the All Blacks game. He must make sound tactical decisions if New Zealand is to beat Australia and to retain its chance of winning the World Cup for the first time since 1987.

Henry said Cruden was coping well with that pressure.

"He's pretty good actually,'' Henry said. "He's the man this week. Last week he was sub so it's a big challenge for him but he's a bright rugby player, he knows the game well.

"He's captained a lot of teams he's been in so he directs traffic well, but it's a big game isn't it, the biggest game he's ever played in. It's the biggest game a lot of them have played in quite frankly so it's true that it's challenging, but he seems to be handling it well.''

Cruden said so far his nerves were holding up.

"At the moment I'm not too bad,'' he said. "I definitely will (be nervous) closer to kickoff time, that's only natural. At the moment I'm just soaking it all in. It's the semifinal of a World Cup so it doesn't get much better than this.

"It's definitely ... another huge challenge that I'm really looking forward to. Against Australia it's always an epic battle and you chuck a semifinal into the mix, so it's huge.''

Sunday's match will be only Cruden's eighth for New Zealand. He played seven tests last year, six as a replacement, but was dropped after his only starting appearance when he played ineffectively against Australia in Sydney in September.

Both Cruden and Henry are confident he's become a better player.

"He's a year older,'' Henry said. "He's a lot more experienced.

"I think that was probably his first test match or close to it, his first big test match anyway, and he's 15 months older and learned from that experience, which I think is very important.

"Very seldom is a player a finished product in their first outing and you get better with age. He'll get better with age and he'll be a good footballer as time goes on, he's a very good footballer now.''

Cruden also believes his game has advanced since that match in Sydney. He showed signs in the quarterfinal against Argentina that he is a more mature and confident player.

"I'd like to think (I've improved) quite a bit,'' he said. "Back then I was fairly nervous and put a lot of pressure on myself but this time the boys have really got behind me and just said to go out there and be Aaron Cruden and express myself, play my natural game. That's something I look forward to on Sunday.''

Israel Dagg returns at fullback after recovering from a thigh injury and Richard Kahui is restored to the left wing after overcoming a shoulder injury in the other changes to the All Blacks starting lineup. Andy Ellis has been preferred as backup scrumhalf to Jimmy Cowan for the Australia match, joining flyhalf Stephen Donald and Sonny Bill Williams among the backline reserves.

"Sonny Bill's been a great player to bring off the bench and he can play a number of positions now,'' Henry said. "I think he's become a bit of a super sub hasn't he?''

After a week of speculation about his sore foot, captain Richie McCaw was confirmed as a starter on the openside flank. Victor Vito is on the bench as cover for the loose fowards, awarded that role when Adam Thomson failed a fitness test.

"(Richie's) trained very little and will train very little today,'' Henry said. "I think the big thing is he's got to take the track and he's got a niggly foot and the more we keep him off it the more chance he's got of playing 80 minutes at the weekend, so it's as simple as that really.

"He seems pretty good. He's pretty upbeat and looking forward to the game but he's frustrated by it obviously. He'd like to be taking full part but you've just got to be pragmatic about it and he's doing that.''

Australia coach Robbie Deans was due to announce his lineup later Friday, with the main doubt being over the fitness of fullback Kurtley Beale.

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New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams.

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