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Bledisloe battle must be spark that relights Barrett brothers' flames

By Tom Vinicombe
(Original photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has made six positional changes to the starting line-up for his side’s third and final clash with the Wallabies for 2021.

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Three of those changes were forced due to Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga remaining in New Zealand for the first leg of the All Blacks’ 10-game tour, with Scott Barrett, Brad Weber and Beauden Barrett joining the run-on side in their absences.

The other three changes to the last team that ran out against the Wallabies sees Rieko Ioane shift from centre to the left wing, with Anton Lienert-Brown taking his spot in the No 13 jersey, and Jordie Barrett slotting in at fullback in place of Damian McKenzie.

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Beauden Barrett is focusing on the massive opportunity ahead of him.

While the Bledisloe Cup is already locked away until next year, courtesy of the All Blacks’ 33-25 and 57-22 wins at Eden Park, the Rugby Championship is still very much on the line.

The Springboks’ currently hold pole position on the ladder after recording back-to-back wins over the Pumas in South Africa. Many expect that the two games between the All Blacks and Springboks will ultimately decide the competition champion but a victory over the Wallabies will take some pressure off Foster’s men.

Even putting the Rugby Championship to the side, the All Blacks are still striving to reclaim their place at the pinnacle of world rugby and a win in today’s game will ensure the 2015 Rugby World Cup champions remain on the right path.

On a more micro level, individual All Blacks have plenty to gain from today’s clash.

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First and foremost, Beauden Barrett was not long ago an automatic selection in the backline, whether that was at first five or fullback. That’s no longer the case and after spending the first half of the domestic season in Japan, the 30-year-old has ceded his starting role to the Mo’unga-McKenzie combination.

Barrett, despite possessing a unreal turn of pace and the ability to break a game open, must reassert himself as a winning game-driver after suggesting that the No 10 jersey is where he sees himself playing for the next few years.

Only four times since the start of 2019 has Barrett actually played at flyhalf for the All Blacks. Three of those games were against sides that NZ have traditionally well accounted for, Argentina, Tonga and Fiji, and one came in last year’s defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane.

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Mo’unga, by contrast, took some time to find his feet in the black jersey but now appears to be maturing as an international pivot. Were it not for the impending arrival of Mo’unga’s second-born child, Barrett may have found himself frozen out from the No 10 jersey. Today’s clash with the Wallabies, as such, is a massive opportunity for the 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year to remind all and sundry what he’s capable of.

It was younger brother Jordie Barrett who also partnered Barrett in that 24-22 loss to the Wallabies last season and while the 24-year-old has positioned himself as arguably the top fullback in Super Rugby (although Will Jordan and Damian McKenzie might have something to say about that), at times seemingly carrying the Hurricanes on his shoulder since Beauden’s departure at the end of 2019, that form has never quite translated into test football.

In Barrett’s defence, he’s not had many opportunities at No 15 over the past two campaigns, starting just two games in that role since the beginning of 2019.

It’s wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that Barrett has the size and skill to become the best fullback in the world – but he needs to prove that with the few opportunities he’s likely to be given as the squad’s designated back-up to McKenzie. That’s no easy ask, but this afternoon’s match has to be the kick-off point for greater things – and that means more than just a ‘safe’ display at the back.

The other man with plenty to prove in the backs is new halfback Brad Weber, making just his second start in the black jersey.

At 30 years of age, Weber is no spring chicken – and he’s just a handful of matches short of cracking the tonne for the Chiefs. In international terms, however, he’s certainly not teeming with experience, especially not compared to positional rivals Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.

Realistically, it’s only Perenara that Weber is competing with, however, as Smith is so clearly the number one No 9 in New Zealand rugby – and the world.

Weber’s been afforded the first opportunity to start in Smith’s absence, which is no easy task, but his skillset is perhaps more appropriate for the All Blacks’ fast-paced game than that of Perenara’s.

There are no guarantees that both Perenara and Weber will hold their spots in the squad until the World Cup, given the presence of some plucky young talents around the nation, and now is Weber’s opportunity to show that he can run the All Blacks machine in a big match against top opposition – something that even Perenara has struggled with in his 70 appearances for the national side.

The other man with the most on the line this afternoon is perhaps reserve lock Tupou Vaa’i, the 21-year-old who’s yet to accrue any minutes for NZ this season through their five tests to date.

Vaa’i is New Zealand’s fifth-choice lock at present, but there’s a tremendous upside to the young second-rower who forwards coach John Plumtree described earlier this week as a “young Brodie Retallick”.

The All Blacks won’t take five locks to the World Cup in France, however, which means that having unlimited potential won’t be enough for Vaa’i to head off the likes of Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu.

Two years is a long time in the scheme of things – but Vaa’i could start to slowly shimmy his foot in the door with a strong performance off the bench for the All Blacks. Experience is not on the youngter’s side, but Barrett and Tuipulotu have also never consistently proven themselves as men truly capable of usurping Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick for a starting jersey.

Vaa’i, on the other hand, could be the man that finally breaks that partnership in two.

Even if that’s too aspirational a challenge for the 21-year-old, a spot on the plane to France could be up for grabs if Vaa’i can accrue some solid minutes this season, and that needs to start today.

That, of course, also means that Barrett – starting in place of Whitelock – needs to reinforce his position as the All Blacks’ third-choice second-rower. The 27-year-old at one stage looked like he might upstage his brothers as the ‘best Barrett’ for the All Blacks, but some ill-discipline in recent seasons – a red card against the Wallabies in 2019, and a yellow in last year’s loss – has perhaps taken some of the gloss off what he offers in terms of raw ability.

Further indiscipline won’t end Barrett’s career by any stretch of the imagination, but the All Blacks selectors need to know that the big lock’s indiscretions aren’t developing into a trend, otherwise they’ll have reservations about fielding Barrett in tight encounters.

While Vaa’i could make his career from today’s clash in Perth, it’s the Barrett brothers who have the most to gain. Starts for any of the three don’t come easily, let alone all at once, and they now have an amble opportunity to reinforce their positions not just in the squad, but in the match-day line-up.

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Bledisloe battle must be spark that relights Barrett brothers' flames

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