11 Nov. 2022
SPIRITS OF SUNGOLIATH #821 Aaron Cruden
Aaron Cruden 『 Embrace and Enjoy the Challenges 』
This time we have Aaron Cruden with us, who has played the last couple of seasons with Kobelco Kobe Steelers. We dig into his personality, his mindset, and what the promising standoff brings to the field. (Interviewed on: Oct 2022)
◆Nothing but the positives for my family
――You have been with Kobelco Kobe steelers the last couple of seasons. What is your overall impression of Japan?
It's been amazing. Before we came to Japan we were just excited to experience the history, the culture, the cuisines and interact with the people. For me and the family it's been nothing but the positives. We actually had a baby here as well- my son was born here in Japan. Japan will always hold a special place for me and my family. We're just really loving our experience here.
――Did you name your son after a Japanese name?
We didn't (laughs), his name is Cooper Michael. We kept it a bit of a traditional name for us.
――Have you been to Japan before joining Kobelco Kobe Steelers?
Back in 2009 I had my Under20 tournament here in Japan, and we spent about 6weeks here. We were mainly based in Nagoya for the pool games and came to Tokyo for the finals after that. I got to experience the culture in 2009 but I was a lot younger back then, so coming back now at my age, I appreciate the experience a lot more.
――I guess Tokyo has changed quite a bit since then too?
I certainly think so. We were in Kobe the last couple of years but when we got the opportunity to sign with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath, both me and my wife were super excited. Rugby offers a lot of things and international travels is one of them, and we get to experience different cultures, but what a better city to be able to live and experience than Tokyo. We have been really excited, and as you can see it has changed a lot, but it's still such a beautiful and diverse city. There's so much to do, see and explore.
◆Experiencing different styles of rugby
――You were playing in France before coming to Japan.
I played professionally in NZ for a long time and opportunity had come up to play in France. I was at a stage in my career where I was ready for a new challenge, put myself out of my comfort zone and experience something different. Initially when I got to France I was hoping things would fall into place very quickly, but the reality of the situation is that you always need a little bit of time to adjust and adapt. Having come to Japan after that, I've learnt from my French experience that I just need to give myself a little bit of time, in terms of understanding the rugby, understanding a little bit of the culture, and really just allowing myself to find my way within the systems.
It's been cool, there's obviously been challenges amongst those experiences as well, but looking back at it I don't think I'd change the decision to leave NZ. My rugby career, or any rugby career, is such a short window and I wanted to try experiencing lots of different styles of rugby in my playing career.
――What brought you to Japan after France?
I guess there's a couple of reasons. Me and my wife talked that we still wanted the overseas experience and that we weren't quite ready to move back to NZ full time- so that was a big one. And just getting the opportunity to experience the different rugby environment, rugby styles and competitions around the world has always interested me. The game is growing and developing so much worldwide and I wanted to have an opportunity to experience those, and to challenge myself as well; to put myself in the uncomfortable situation, to go and see if I can continue to grow as a player.
◆Adjusting was the challenging part
――Now that you're in Japan and have played rugby here- what worked well, and what did you find challenging?
Probably looking at the evolution of the Japanese rugby in the last 5-10years, what I love about it is that it's high pace, fast tempo, the movement of the ball, really open style of rugby; that's something I really enjoy, and it's probably where I can play my best rugby. That was a real positive and I was really excited, that I thought I will be a really good fit.
Obviously one of the challenges is adjusting to the style, to the cultures and of course, the language. This is something that you have to continue to work on because there are a few different ethnicities and a few languages, so trying to find that common ground and level of understanding on how we communicate on the field effectively and accurately.
――You must be studying Japanese quite a bit?
Yes bits and pieces (laughs). Obviously the rugby terminologies in Japanese have been pretty good, but when you get out to the real world- that's where I can be a little bit more shy, reserved as you get conscious. You don't want to embarrass yourself in front of people, but in saying that, everyone here in Japan has been so nice to go out of their way to make sure we're comfortable. When myself and family have gone out and if we look like we're lost, they'll come over and make sure we know where we get to and that's been very comforting as well.
――You have scored in every game you played last season. How did you find playing rugby in Japan?
I was restricted with injury in my first season, which for any player is quite frustrating because you just want to be out on the filed contributing to the team.
But when I got the opportunity to play, I was really happy with how I went. I thought I had adjusted to the style of rugby in Japan, and felt I was contributing. I was playing with freedom and excitement, and that's when I know I'm playing my best rugby. And that's certainly what am hoping to bring to Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath.
◆Having a sense of belonging
――I heard you're close to Damian McKenzie, who was in the team last season.
Yes we had dinner last night actually (laughs). Back in NZ players who are close speak to each other. I had nothing but positive things to say about my Japanese experience, and obviously he decided he wanted to come and experience it last season. He had a massive impact and I think he played outstandingly well. With the type of player and the the type of person he is- he's very buoyant, very happy, and that shows the way he plays and handles himself.
――You're now with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath which Damian Mackenzie played. What brought you to Suntory?
When the opportunity came up, it was a no brainer. The history, the success of the club, were something I wanted to be a part of, always striving to get better, striving to get championships. Like anything in rugby, sometimes one door closes and one door opens. When the Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath door opened and opportunity came, I was super excited and jumped at it with both hands.
――Now that you're with the team- how are you finding it?
I love it. Everyone's been kind, welcoming, going out of their way to make sure I'm as comfortable as possible from the first day. To me that's very comforting, it's nice to have that sense of belonging, and that's certainly how I feel. Preseason is going pretty well- we're starting to have games now and there's a lot of hard work going on. I'm trying to contribute on and off the field, in any way that I can for the ultimate success for the team.
――Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie were with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath before you. There's probably a certain role you're expected of- how do you think of that?
It's exciting- it's obviously a challenge, but the type of a player and a person that I am, I have an extremely high expectation of myself so that just fits perfectly with the role. Like anything in a professional environment there are pressures, but also if you manage those pressures well, and see them as challenges and opportunities, that's when you really get the best out of yourself, and that's what I'm looking forward to this season.
――Are you good at handling pressures?
I'd like to think so, definitely sometimes better than others- sometimes it works and sometimes it might be a little bit off. But everything is a learning opportunity. When you look at our squad, there're some experienced players and also some young, exciting players coming through. For me it's about getting around some of the young players to share some of my experiences, and getting them ready to understand that some of those pressures will come during games, but being able to handle them, being ready for them, and working towards those challenges, is really exciting.
――What do you like about rugby?
When I was a young kid it was all about being out on the field with my teammates, running with or kicking a ball, and that's probably where my initial love for rugby started. As I started progressing through the ranks, it was probably the challenge the each next level brought, in regards to understanding tactics, working technically on your craft, on your role and your responsibility within the team.
Getting to the highest level- it's about challenging yourself against the other best players in the world, and embracing the pressures and challenges. Having fun at the same time but understanding that to get any growth you need to put yourself out there, and out of your comfortable position, to keep challenging and keep pushing the boundaries. That's probably what I love about rugby. The way that it can bring so much joy to you as a player and also to people that's sitting and watching at the same time.
――Japan is playing against All Blacks this weekend (29 Oct). As a former All Black, what do you think it's like for the All Blacks to face against Japan at this time of the year?
I think they'll be very excited. Through talking to a few of the players last night, normally after the rugby championship they'd usually only have 1 to 2 weeks before they go on tour, but this season for some reason it ended up being 4 weeks in between. They'd still have to do their off season trainings but they were able to recover and relax a little bit. So talking to the boys last night at dinner, they're really excited for this game. They know that Japan's just had a series against Australia A, but it's going to be different- it's a test match now and everyone knows that the standard, the pressure, the expectation at a test match always rise. I think it's going to be a great match. I'm excited and I'll hopefully take my family along. It'll be really exciting, I can see that it's going to be a big challenge for both teams.
(Interview & Structure: Kazuyoshi Hariya /Translator: Shino Kusunose /Editing: Yutaro Igarashi)
[Photo: Aki Nagao]