There was excellent news from Tokyo last night, with the New Zealand under-20 team winning its second successive IRB Junior World Championship. The New Zealanders beat England 44-28 in the final scoring seven tries to three.
That achievement itself is noteworthy. But the REALLY great story is the triumphant return of New Zealand captain, Aaron Cruden, who was also named IRB junior player of the year.
In September last year, Cruden withdrew from rugby after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was in his debut season with the Manawatu Turbos in the Air New Zealand Cup.
Cruden responded well to treatment, and seems to have made a full recovery. And as Stuff reports, he was the stand-out player in New Zealand's victory last night. We were not at all surprised by Aaron Cruden's return to the top level.
Having grown up in the Manawatu, and been active in rugby circles, we know the Cruden family well. His father Stu and uncle John Cruden were prominent players through the 1980's, and were tough, uncompromising men. The Cruden family name is synonomous with the Queen Elizabeth College Old Boys club, which Aaron now represents (despite being an old boy of our alma mater, Palmerston North Boys' High School). Rugby is deeply embedded in the Cruden DNA. From the photo above, we reckon that Aaron Cruden is the spitting image of his old man!
Importantly though, it shows that heartland New Zealand is still developing rugby talent in spades. Manawatu may be in the nether regions of the Air New Zealand Cup, but still contributed four players to the U-20's, and the side was coached by Manawatu coach, transplanted Wellingtonian Dave Rennie. And Palmerston North BHS is one of the great rugby "nurseries".
This presents challenges to the NZRU as it looks to restructure the Air NZ Cup competition. We appreciate the juggling act the Steve Tew and his colleagues face in trying to keep our premier domestic competition competitive AND financially viable. It's not an easy job that they face, and unions such as Manawatu and Northland are just as crucial to the future health of our rugby as are Auckland and Canterbury.
But one thing is for sure, in our considered opinion - given the dearth of quality first-fives we currently face, the NZRU must be proactive in protecting Cruden from the chequebooks of the Northern Hemisphere.
Well done Aaron Cruden and the Under-20's - you've done us proud!
UPDATE: We've just heard that Zac Guildford's father Rob died suddenly in the stands while watching his son playing in the final. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Guildford whanau at this terribly sad and bittersweet time. Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui - Arohanui.