AUCKLAND, New Zealand - New Zealand's chances of ending an extended World Cup drought could hinge on two players who were more focussed on skate boarding and fishing than rugby in recent weeks before being dragged into the All Blacks squad as the third and fourth choice flyhalves.
The All Blacks' injury crisis deepened Monday when flyhalf Colin Slade, already a backup for star playmaker Dan Carter, and 100-test fullback Mils Muliaina withdrew from the World Cup with injuries. Slade's departure exposed the lack of depth at No. 10 that will likely thrust 22-year-old Aaron Cruden into a semifinal against Australia in only his second test in a starting XV.
It forced selectors to draft in another flyhalf, Stephen Donald, and winger Hosea Gear into the 30-man squad as replacements.
Cruden replaced Slade in the first half of the 33-10 quarterfinal win over Argentina on Sunday and played primarily as a distributor while scrumhalf Piri Weepu directed the backline. Regardless, that makes him the incumbent All Blacks flyhalf. Donald is No. 4 in the pecking order.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry said it was an obvious setback to lose yet another flyhalf, but he was confident the incoming replacements could handle the high-stakes knockout stage of the tournament.
"That's the reality. We've just got to make sure it works," Henry told a packed news conference on Monday in Auckland. "It's obvious (Cruden and Donald) aren't the first two five-eighths chosen. And that is a setback, isn't it? Let's be blatantly frank about that. But that's the reality."
He said Donald had been out fishing when he got the call up. It was only a week ago that Cruden was called up after watching the start of the tournament on TV and keeping fit by skateboarding.
"Last week (Cruden) was skateboarding around Palmerston North, having a couple of beers and watching us play — now he's the No. 1 10 in the country," Henry said. "So it's a big change, obviously. And a major challenge for him. I thought he handled the situation particularly well on the weekend when he went on."
Henry hinted that he'd stick with Cruden as his first-choice flyhalf, meaning Donald will likely be included on the reserves bench for Sunday's match against the two-time World Cup champion Australians.
Cruden has had a short career at the senior level with the Wellington Hurricanes in Super rugby but, after overcoming testicular cancer in 2009, has recovered to earn seven test caps, including six as a replacement. He played most recently with Manawatu in the domestic competition and is preparing to move to the Waikato Chiefs next season.
Donald, capped 22 times, hasn't played for the All Blacks since last year's end-of-season tour. Gear played twice in this year's Tri-Nations and it was considered a surprise when he missed the World Cup squad.
Donald had been ready to join Bath in the English premiership, but was contracted to remain in New Zealand until the end of the World Cup as injury cover for the tournament. Asked to elaborate on how the newest member of the World Cup squad had been keeping fit, Henry explained that Donald had come up with something left field.
"Well, he was whitebaiting when I talked to him today," Henry said, revealing a rare smile. "So he's been running up and down the side of the river — One of the criteria for selection was two pounds of fresh whitebait."
The injury to Carter on the eve of New Zealand's last pool match against Canada was a massive setback for New Zealand, which is aiming to end a 24-year World Cup drought since it won the inaugural edition at home in 1987. Carter was the leading pointscorer in international rugby and was considered irreplaceable.
All kinds of options were debated before Slade was given the quarterfinal start. Cruden went on as his replacement against Argentina only days after being drafted into the squad, so at least he's had more than half a match to get used to the intensity of the World Cup.
Donald has played seven tests against the Wallabies, winning the first six before his part in the 26-24 loss in Hong Kong last October dented his standing in the All Blacks squad. Now that he's back, Henry thinks Donald will settle straight in.
"Where we're lucky is that the guys who're coming in have played test match football," Henry said. "They've been with this group in the last 12 months. They've been here, they know the players, they know the environment we live in and they know the rugby we're trying to play, generally speaking."
Slade hurt a muscle in his left groin, coincidentally a week after Carter tore a tendon in his groin, and was sidelined from the tournament.
Muliaina fractured his left shoulder and will be sidelined for six to eight weeks.
The veteran fullback appeared at a news conference Monday and said he was shattered by his latest injury.
"I wasn't expecting to be doing this today. Getting the bad news today is a bitter disappointment," he said. "I've had an outstanding run and I'm particularly proud to have been an All Black."
Muliaina is moving to Japan after the World Cup, so won't be available for the national team. Israel Dagg has already been anointed as his successor in the No. 15 jersey, but Muliaina said he was still disappointed his World Cup experience had finished two games too early.
"It's a little bit sad because I know that I'm not going to be back."