Whether at flyhalf or fullback, Beauden Barrett plays an integral role for the All Blacks, writes MARC HINTON in the latest issue of SA Rugby Magazine.
If Beauden Barrett wasn’t, well, Beauden Barrett he might be just a little frazzled; maybe even fending off some self-doubt. He’s about to head to the World Cup as part of Steve Hansen’s All Blacks History Boys chasing a third title on the bounce and it’s fair to say he does so with the ground somewhat unsettled under his feet.
Barrett is a man on the move, in more ways than one. Not only is the world-class New Zealand backline wiz and two-time World Player of the Year changing home franchises – and cities – for the next four years, but he’s also bedding-in a dramatic, and not altogether painless, shift from flyhalf to fullback in Steve Hansen’s All Blacks lineup.
Both come with a fair slice of pressure. Barrett is already being hailed as the saviour of a Blues franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for the past decade and more. This once proud Auckland club, which set the standard in the early years of Super Rugby, has played finals footy just once since 2007 and has become a figure of pity in Kiwi sport for its inability to turn talent, population, resources and hype into anything remotely substantial on the rugby field.
No pressure, but this gifted 28-year-old has been identified as the final piece in the puzzle for a Blues outfit desperate to reclaim the high ground. They’ve changed coaches, administrators, systems and mindsets. Now they have the best playmaker in the game to guide them to the Promised Land.
Then there’s Barrett’s All Blacks role, which is front and centre right now. That’s changed too. The widely considered best flyhalf on the planet has been shifted back to the No 15 jersey to accommodate the emerging capabilities of Richie Mo’unga and Hansen’s desire to have two drivers on the park at one time. What’s better than one defence-shredding, super-charged first receiver with all the skills in the world and pace to match?
Why, two of course.
But the shift has not been without its challenges. The All Blacks’ 36-0 bounce-back Bledisloe shutout of the Wallabies at Eden Park in their final serious contest before the World Cup (notwithstanding a pre-departure hit-out against Tonga on 7 September) was the combination’s only obvious success in the three Tests they had together before the squad announcement for Japan.
The others saw the All Blacks pummelled 47-26 by the Wallabies in Perth and held to a 16-16 stalemate by the Springboks in Wellington, with the Mo’unga-Barrett playmaking tandem hardly delivering the results Hansen kept promising.
But at Eden Park we got our first real glimpse that this daring switch could prove a World Cup deal-breaker. Even with Barrett feeling under the weather in his 77th Test with a debilitating stomach bug that came on just hours from kick-off, the All Blacks’ game flowed beautifully all night in tricky, wet conditions. Their kicking was on point, the attack exhilarating at times and on a night when Sonny Bill Williams, Anton Lienert-Brown and new wings George Bridge and Sevu Reece were outstanding, Mo’unga and Barrett ran the show splendidly.
Asked to describe their performance at Eden Park, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster opted for ‘assured’. He added: ‘When you’re starting some things, it takes a little while for the instincts to kick in. We’ve seen that in the past couple of Tests and tonight, with these conditions, we were probably forced more into a two-pivot role and in some ways it made it a little easier. It’s a result of two to three solid weeks of playing and training together, and things started to look a little more intuitive for them.’
Foster said before Bledisloe II he’d seen signs of Mo’unga growing more accustomed in his role, which was different to what it was with, say, the Crusaders for the simple reason he also has Barrett as an alternate receiver.
‘Looking at how many times they touch the ball, it needs to be positive, so we’re not dampening one player to increase the playmaking ability of the other,’ adds Foster. ‘We’re getting a good balance. It’s a pretty big success story that Beauden can be one of the leading 10s in the world and then in the past few Tests he’s probably been our best player at 15. He’s made that transition really well.’
Hansen appears committed to the set-up for Japan, noting: ‘To replace Beauden at first five [flyhalf] you’ve got to have someone who’s pretty good and Richie’s been playing very well for the past couple of years. At some point you want all your good players on the park. Both of them are world class.’
Barrett, for his part, feels they’re getting there. ‘Eden Park was probably the best one yet. It requires a fair bit of ball to be able to dictate play the way we’d like to, and this was a step in the right direction.
‘I’ve had a few games in the 15 jersey, and I guess it’s understanding how Richie and I can work well together, and that understanding is growing by the minute. Ultimately it requires similar skills. It’s just the tactical side that’s different and working with the boys in the outside channels, rather than being involved close to the ruck.’
Barrett says the key to Mo’unga and him sparking the All Blacks attack game is to be as uncluttered as possible with their mindsets. ‘If you can be in that headspace where you’re not thinking too much, you’re feeling free and just playing, that’s where we want to be.
‘It’s being aligned on what we’re to trying achieve from a team perspective, and going into a game with a plan and implementing that. At the end of the day it’s rugby, and we try to keep it quite simple out there.’
He also felt the All Blacks’ performance at Eden Park – easily their best display in the past year – was ‘huge’ from a World Cup perspective with its injection of confidence and momentum.
‘We knew the answers would be in the room and we found them,’ adds Barrett. ‘I wouldn’t say it was simple but what we saw came through simple rugby, just doing the basics right and having the right intent.’
In terms of his move north to the Blues next year, Barrett looks set to take it in his graceful stride, already excited by the challenge in play once he returns from his extended post-World Cup break. Once he decided a permanent offshore departure was out of the equation, it became only a matter of signing off on a ‘family-first’ switch, with wife Hannah hailing from Auckland.
‘The underlying thing is I knew I wasn’t ready to go offshore and I know I have plenty to give to New Zealand rugby,’ he says. ‘We worked back from there and figured out what would be the best thing for me, my family and my rugby. Four years at a new franchise is a big call, but it’s one I’m looking forward to.’
Barrett has no concerns around the pressures that will go along with engineering the long-awaited Blues’ turnaround. It’s nothing he hasn’t faced before. ‘I gave all I could to the Hurricanes. Now I see huge potential with the Blues,’ he says. ‘My standards won’t change. I’ll continue to try to be the best player I can be. If I can add to what the Blues want to do, which is to get better and win championships, that’s what I’m there to do.
‘I’d like to think I can share my experience. I know how to influence players around me, I know how to be demanding on players, tell them what I expect and what I need to do my job … Change is really good. I get excited about any changes I have in life and certainty is good too. It’s nice to know where we’re going to be for the next four years.’
Yes, for Beauden Barrett, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby Magazine, a special 164-page bumper issue now on sale