Beauden Barrett has proved he can start at flyhalf for the All Blacks, writes MARC HINTON.
There was a moment in the Hurricanes’ rollicking Super Rugby quarter-final victory over the Sharks, played in miserable conditions at the Cake Tin in Wellington, that encapsulated the year Beauden Barrett is having.
He was lining up a conversion from wide out into a swirling gale and driving rain, needing a teammate to hold the ball in place on the tee. The odds were long on him just getting in the general vicinity of the sticks.
Then, just as he ran in to strike, the degree of difficulty skyrocketed when the ball shifted unceremoniously as the steadying digit was removed. Barrett paused a micro-second, then, with a shrug of the shoulders, swung through to send the off-kilter Gilbert soaring between the posts. When you’ve got it, you’ve just got it, right?
Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Right about now, Barrett is in the sort of form that suggests he can simply do no wrong. Everything he touches is turning to gold, whether it’s for the Canes or the All Blacks, and it could well force national coach Steve Hansen into a major rethink over his plans for the No 10 jersey in the Rugby Championship.
The 25-year-old Hurricanes flyhalf has emerged in recent years as a key member of Hansen’s All Blacks contingent. But he has developed a reputation as somewhat of a supersub, with an uncanny ability to come off the bench, at either fullback or flyhalf, and do something special. Something game-changing.
He made a habit of it during the All Blacks’ surge to a second straight World Cup success in England last year and even as the new post-Dan Carter era dawned on New Zealand rugby, Hansen was not figuring on altering that equation too much.
Carter may have left New Zealand rugby, along with Colin Slade and Tom Taylor, who had also logged time in the black No 10 jersey in recent years, but the remarkable depth in the Kiwi game has ensured barely a beat has been missed.
Aaron Cruden returned from the knee injury that wrecked his 2015 season to guide the Chiefs to the Super Rugby semi-finals, while the Highlanders’ Lima Sopoaga continued his rapid evolution as a world-class playmaker. Barrett, of course, was in sizzling form for the Canes as they finally clinched their maiden Super Rugby title.
All three were included in Hansen’s squad to face Wales in the June Test window, and the World Cup-winning coach spelt out at the start that he very much saw Barrett continuing in his role as the impact man off the pine, with Cruden slotting in as the set- up man from the off.
‘He’s world-class in what he does; he covers 10 and 15 and has had a massive influence on games when he’s come off the bench,’ said Hansen of Barrett’s talismanic ability to make things happen late-game. ‘We don’t think Cruden would have that same influence coming off the bench, so we think it’s the right thing for the team.’
But then a neck injury to Cruden in the second Test against the Welsh changed the equation. Barrett, who had played well at fullback off the bench in an opening Test swung by the impact men, played 47 minutes at No 10 in Wellington and was, after a shaky start, very good. He scored one try with a spectacular run, set up another for Ben Smith and played with such verve and veracity that he was widely hailed afterwards as a momentum-changer.
For the last of the June Tests, in Dunedin, Barrett was installed as the starting No 10 (just his seventh such assignment from 39 Test appearances) and, wouldn’t you know it, he had another blinder, racking up a personal-best 26-point haul, courtesy of two tries, five conversions, two penalties and just one missed shot at goal. Crucially, that sure boot erased the last major doubt over his suitability to start in the flyhalf position − his ability to slot the kicks under the pressure of a Test match.
It was a commanding performance from a young man (the eldest of three lookalike brothers all making a big impact on the New Zealand game) giving every sign of going to the next level with his game. And it came about, he said, because he learned to do a very simple thing.
‘I did feel relaxed out there,’ Barrett reflected afterwards. ‘It’s been a focus of mine to enjoy my footy and not over-think anything; just take it as it comes. It was good fun.’
Barrett credits All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster with helping him deconstruct his goal-kicking routine.
‘He’s got a really relaxed style of coaching. I’m a lot more calm in my head, a lot more relaxed physically. It’s a step in the right direction … It’s about just kicking the ball and not over-thinking anything. I’m in a good spot mentally. It was back to basics. Back to how I used to kick as a kid. Not trying to be a robot and technically perfect, just feeling comfortable over the ball and kicking how I kick.’
It’s worked a treat, and Barrett’s form in the post-June return to Super Rugby underlined his status as one of the big movers and improvers of the New Zealand game. He kicked all seven of his shots at goal in a measured display against the Blues, and he didn’t miss a beat as the Canes stunned the Crusaders in Christchurch to finish top of the overall standings. Barrett then starred for the Canes in the playoffs, being named Man of the Match after the final against the Lions.
All of which left Hansen, who recently inked a two-year contract extension with the All Blacks, with a big decision to make going into the Rugby Championship. Should he continue to use the explosive Barrett off the bench, despite his clear desire, and now obvious suitability, to start? Or should he reward his classy playmaker with a deserved promotion and figure out the rest thereafter?
There is a growing clamour in New Zealand for Barrett to take ownership of that No 10 jersey permanently. The feeling is he’s met his challenges, shown he can kick pressure goals, that he can run a game as well he can a line, and that, first and foremost, he is ready.
We shall see soon enough if the Rugby Championship is to be this young man’s coming- out party. You’ve received your invitations.
First it was the Whitelocks, now it's the Barretts. New Zealand rugby is certainly blessed with some super siblings.
Of course, the achievement of the four Whitelock brothers (George, Sam, Luke and Adam) all playing for the Crusaders in the 2012 season is a record that will take some beating. But the Barretts look intent on giving the Whitelocks a run for their money.
Already 25-year-old Beauden, son of Taranaki 167-game stalwart Kevin 'Smiley' Barrett, has come through to establish himself, with the Hurricanes and All Blacks, as one of the premier No 10s in world rugby.
Now younger brother Scott (23) is carving a reputation as a sturdy second-row presence for the Crusaders, recently re-signed a contract to stay longer in the south.
Throw in 19-year-old sibling Jordie, who played for New Zealand U20 this year and is also in the Canterbury system, and there could be a trio of Barretts in Super Rugby as soon as next year.
Oldest brother, 26-year-old Kane, has also played for the Blues, while fifth male sibling Blake (there are also three sisters) turned out in representative age-grade footy in Taranaki.
– This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine