Beauden Barrett was stiffed by the All Blacks but we can't make the same mistake with Richie Mo'unga
The 2019 All Blacks ought to have been Beauden Barrett’s.
If ever a man had served the right apprenticeship to dictate an All Blacks’ world cup campaign, it was Barrett.
Only he never got that chance to own the team’s performances from first five-eighth. Injury or luck didn’t intervene, just the preference of New Zealand’s selection panel to play Richie Mo’unga at 10.
No matter how good your captain or how strong your senior leadership group, a team still belongs to its first five-eighth. He’s the man that so much revolves around and the player who has to have absolute confidence in his ability, but more importantly his position in the side.
If a first five-eighth feels his place is under any threat, he will not perform to his potential.
Barrett was badly let down by New Zealand’s selectors and coaches, just as we seem destined to undermine Mo’unga in the same way. It’s madness not to entrust one man with the on-field running of a team, but we seem determined to keep doing it.
It’s the definition of insanity in that regard.
Who knows whether Barrett or Mo’unga is truly the best first-five. And, at this rate, we’ll never know.
Until one can play without the continual presence of the other, we’ll never be any the wiser.
The Barrett of 2016 was sensational and he carried that form into the next season’s Super Rugby competition. Come 2017’s series against the British & Irish Lions, though, he had to cede the running of the All Blacks to Aaron Cruden.
Cruden became the team’s nominal finisher, coming on at 10 and shunting Barrett to fullback. At a time when the ball simply had to be in Barrett’s hands as often as possible, he was playing second fiddle instead.
Along came Mo’unga after that and here we are now.
For as long as All Blacks coach Ian Foster declines to say or do anything definitive at first five-eighth, we’ll continue to have questions and debate about whether Barrett or Mo’unga ought to be starting. And playing the former at fullback is no solution, as we’ve seen.
Two playmakers sounds great, but in effect Mo’unga and Barrett are only half the player when the other is in the side.
But Foster, as he’s shown since the Cruden and Barrett days, is a man who likes to have a bob each way. As remains the case now, with his wait and see approach to the running of this team.
It’s as if he hopes injury – or a catastrophic loss of form – will dictate things for him, eliminating the necessity to tell Barrett or Mo’unga that there’s only room for one of them.
Indecision off the park, breeds indecision on it.
Mo’unga – as she’s shown innumerable times – knows the Crusaders belong to him. There’s not a doubt in his mind about his status in that team or his ability to determine the outcome of matches.
He’s now – two years out from the next World Cup – in the same spot Barrett was in 2017. Mo’unga’s done everything he can to show he’s ready to take full ownership of the All Blacks; he now just needs the freedom to prove it.
Equally, at 30, it’s not too late for Barrett. It just requires someone in responsibility to actually make a decision about which first five-eighth New Zealand’s 2023 Rugby World Cup hopes will rest upon.
What we can’t have, though, is Mo’unga, Barrett and the team continuing to be strung along.
Tom Brady doesn’t job-share as an NFL quarterback. He’s not shifted to wide receiver to accommodate an understudy. Brady is the leader of every team he plays in and it would be ludicrous to lessen that in any fashion.
And yet, here we are, perpetuating a situation in which the position of All Blacks first five-eighth remains contestable.
Beauden Barrett was done a disservice by the All Blacks and now we’re doing the same disservice to Richie Mo’unga.
Until one or the other is afforded a clean slate, the All Blacks will continue to be a side in which no-one takes ownership for the winning and losing of big matches.
Coaching is about providing players with the best opportunity to be successful, but neither Barrett nor Mo’unga will ever truly succeed while the other remains in the side.
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