Cruden and Parra take contrasting routes to final
Updated: October 21, 2011, 19:40
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) New Zealand's Aaron Cruden and France's Morgan Parra find themselves squaring off in Sunday's final after contrasting pathways that neither would have expected to lead them to playing flyhalf in the deciding match of a Rugby World Cup.
Cruden started the tournament as No. 3 choice, backup to star flyhalf Dan Carter's understudy, Colin Slade. After Carter and Slade were sidelined with tournament-ending injuries, he was thrust into the spotlight during the quarterfinal against Argentina.
When the tournament started, Parra was second-choice - but at scrumhalf - behind Dimitri Yachvili until coach Marc Lievremont made a surprising and brave decision.
He dropped Francois Trinh-Duc, his first-choice flyhalf for three years, and converted Parra to full-time No. 10 on the basis of two short cameo roles against Japan and Canada in the first two pool games.
The only thing Cruden and Parra have in common is their age: they're both 22.
Lievremont's seemingly left-field decision on his No. 10 was pilloried in some quarters, but he saw something of a backline general in Parra.
"Certainly the more I've played the more comfortable I feel playing in that position and I think that will show itself on the pitch this weekend,'' Parra said.
Parra has grown steadily into his role and, with Yachvili nursing a bruised thigh, kicked three cool penalties to settle a tight semifinal against Wales.
"I never thought I would be playing in the final at No. 10,'' Parra said. "It is a childhood dream of mine and I am trying to make the most of it.''
Lievremont saw enough in Parra to hand him his test debut at scrumhalf when he was only 19 against Scotland at the start of the 2008 Six Nations Championship.
Parra expects to resume playing scrumhalf when he returns to play for Clermont-Auvergne after the tournament. It's not unprecedented for the French, with Frederic Michalak and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde previously switching between the halfback positions.
His transformation has impressed Cruden.
"Parra's a 9 that's been converted into a 10 this tournament, I think his combination with Yachvili has got the French putting themselves into a position to score points,'' Cruden said.
Both players are small in stature, but lack nothing in bite. Parra is the more experienced player with 35 test caps to Cruden's eight, but Cruden has played them in his preferred position.
"He's a great player, a player who's important for the All Blacks,'' Parra said of Cruden. "He wasn't afraid to put himself about out there in the match against the Australians, so I'm expecting a tough match against him.''
Cruden came on late in the first half and quickly settled into the quarterfinal against Argentina when Slade limped off.
"The crowd and everything was pretty overwhelming, but the senior guys really got behind me and told me to play my game,'' Cruden said. "As the game went on, I started to feel I was able to do that and got the groove of the game.''
Cruden showed audacity in the semifinal against Australia, nailing a smart dropped goal in the 20-6 win, and his performances have greatly impressed Lievremont.
"He's playing without a complex, even though the task of replacing Daniel Carter was anything but simple,'' Lievremont said. "It's true that he's been helped by his teammates, in particular (Piri) Weepu, who's in very good form. He played very well against Australia, and Argentina before that, and there are some similarities between him and Parra.''
Parra's good form in an unfamiliar position has drawn praise from some of best flyhalves in the game: England's Jonny Wilkinson and Carter.
"Parra is a very gifted player,'' Wilkinson told French radio station RMC. "What he's doing at No. 10 is already incredible. If he plays with confidence, he can be a key player in the final.''
Carter admires the composure Parra has shown under difficult circumstances.
"He's got a pretty cool head on him. He hasn't played a lot in that position but he's stepped up in the playoff games and he's a very reliable player who has really added something to the French side,'' Carter said. "He's not the biggest guy but he is a good defender as he showed last week (against Wales). So there's not a lot of faults to his game.''
Both players seem like future leaders in the making.
Cruden was captain of the New Zealand team which won the 2009 IRB Junior World Championship.
Away from the pitch, Parra already coaches a local amateur team and is working toward completing his full French Rugby Federation coaching badges. Keeping in touch with the club team's players helps him to stay grounded.
"The guys go to work, then come to training and then go to work again the next day. It makes me realize how lucky I am,'' Parra said. "When I don't want to go training I think of these guys and the sacrifices they make.''