AUCKLAND, 16 Oct. - Aaron Cruden was like any other 22-year-old Kiwi two weeks ago - skateboarding, drinking a few beers with friends and watching the Rugby World Cup on television.
Fast forward a fortnight and the young fly half will have the eyes of a nation on him as he runs out in the All Blacks’ No.10 jersey in Sunday's semi-final against Australia at Eden Park.
"It's funny how things can change in two weeks,” Cruden said. “It's a pretty awesome rollercoaster I'm riding at the moment and hopefully that can continue."
Cruden was initially called into the All Blacks squad as back-up for Colin Slade following Dan Carter’s shock exit from the tournament on the eve of the knockout stages.
But with Slade also ruled out with a groin strain following New Zealand’s 33-10 quarter-final win over Argentina, Cruden has been catapulted into the starting XV for the All Blacks’ greatest test in the tournament so far.
While some might have stumbled under the weight of expectation, assistant coach Wayne Smith believes the young man from Palmerston North can only improve on his performance off the bench against the Pumas.
“To think two or three weeks ago he was falling off a skateboard and then he comes into a quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, and to play with the confidence and excitement he played with, I thought was really promising,” Smith said.
“Another week under the belt has been good for him. The players have been great with him and you can really see the belief in the other players in Aaron. That makes him feel good and I'm sure he'll go out and have a great game."
Cruden has played just seven Tests since making his All Blacks debut against Ireland in June last year but head coach Graham Henry is confident he has the maturity to handle what lies ahead.
"He's a year older, well, what is it, 15 months, and a lot more experienced,” Henry said. "It's very seldom that people are the finished product in their first outing.
"You get better with age and he'll get better with age, he'll be a really good footballer as time goes on. He's a very good footballer now."
Smith believes Cruden's rise also has a lot to do with the challenges he has faced since being diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 19.
"I’m not surprised because he's a mature young man, he's been through a lot himself in life,” Smith said. “That's been pretty well publicised in terms of his cancer scare.
“He's just a well put together young man who's got a strong drive to do well, a strong drive to be in this team and to help this team win."
Cruden has started at fly half against Australia, but the Manawatu and Hurricanes player believes a lot has changed since that last Bledisloe Test in Sydney a year ago.
"Back then I was fairly nervous and put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “But coming in this time the boys have really got behind me and said to just go out there and be Aaron Cruden, to express myself and play my natural game and that's something I'll be looking to do on Sunday."
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw also believes the time between matches wearing an All Blacks jersey has made Cruden more determined to seize the opportunity.
"Sometimes when it gets taken away from you, you realise how much you miss it,” McCaw said. “From what I've seen over the year he's excited about being back because he realises how special it is to be in the All Blacks and he wants to take his chance.”