It would be fair to say All Blacks head coach Ian Foster raised more than a few eyebrows when he named his first team of the year on Friday.
Although the majority of the starting XV to face the Wallabies in Wellington this weekend picked itself, the retention of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett as on-field playmaking partners is something few would have foreseen.
Most anticipated the pair to fight for the No. 10 jersey given how Mo’unga flourished there for the Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa and Barrett publicly admitted it is his preferred role while with the Blues.
Add to that the failed World Cup campaign, whereby the use of Mo’unga at first-five and Barrett at fullback came under heavy criticism, as well as Foster’s comments in the wake of last month’s squad announcement that the duo were in direct competition for the No. 10 spot.
All of that compounded to give the perception that the dual playmaking axis was a game plan that had been put to rest.
Barrett has found himself back in the No. 15 jersey to work in tandem with fellow playmaker Mo’unga, who has won the nod at No. 10, for the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of 2020.
Despite his side’s unsuccessful quest for a hat-trick of World Cups in Japan last year, Foster is adamant that nothing has changed his train of thought around fielding two of his best players on the park simultaneously.
“I wanted to give you a few headlines for a few weeks, but no, nothing’s changed,” he told media in Wellington on Friday of his suggestion that Barrett and Mo’unga were competing for the same position on the team.
“They both want to be 10. Beaudy still wants to play 10, but we also know how influential he can be at 15.”
The influence Barrett wields is undeniable, as evidenced by his two World Rugby Player of the Year accolades and 83 test caps for New Zealand.
His trophy cabinet, which boasts a World Cup, a Super Rugby title and multiple Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup crowns, is a testament to that as well.
The All Blacks team has been named to play Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup test on Sunday.https://t.co/oDyY8UwD9d
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 8, 2020
There was also an obvious correlation between the Blues’ resurgence in Super Rugby with Barrett’s relocation to Auckland this season, yet it’s that arrival at Eden Park that allowed his younger brother Jordie to shine at the Hurricanes.
With the Wellington franchise stripped bare of the magical touches, electric running ability and game-breaking x-factor that Beauden brings to every side he plays for, a hefty weight of responsibility was subsequently placed on the shoulders of Jordie.
Tasked with guiding his backline around the park without the assistance of his older sibling brought out the best of the 23-year-old, though, as he was forced into stamping his authority over matches he otherwise would have been a passenger in.
In doing so, he shed his reputation of being a rocks-and-diamonds type player, one that was just as prone to making a costly error or poor decision as he was capable of doing something extraordinary.
Instead, Jordie played a starring role from his preferred fullback spot for the Hurricanes, often becoming a composed, controlled and central figure in pivotal moments to earn his side victories they may not have attained without him.
However, it’s on the wing that the 17-test Barrett finds himself in while his brother reclaims the No. 15 jersey, nearly a whole year after the All Blacks last played in the World Cup bronze final against Wales.
Foster suggested that abnormally extensive gap between fixtures might have played a role in keeping the status quo in terms of selection.
“When a team goes into the first test, they’re always trying to find their feet. We’ll be the same trying to find our feet structure-wise and having both those guys [Mo’unga and Beauden] on is really important.”
Still, that doesn’t address that Jordie, a player many considered to be one of the best – if not the top performer – in Super Rugby Aotearoa, has been picked outside of the position he had seemingly found a home for himself in.
Perhaps a victim of his vast versatility, the younger Barrett has played in every backline position bar halfback since bursting onto the scene with the New Zealand U20 side in 2016.
That persistent changing of positions may have been a factor in regular inconsistencies at the dawn of his career, but those vulnerabilities went out the window as he enjoyed a sustained run as a senior backline leader from fullback at the Hurricanes.
“Clearly it was an area, in the past, where perhaps he made a few errors,” Foster said of Jordie’s development as a decision maker.
“He’s been a kid on the big stage, and because of his talent, he’s played at a higher level very young and played some big test matches very young, but how impressive has he been this year?
“To become probably one of the key leaders in that Hurricanes team and to take control of a whole lot of situations, so that looking and helping others has actually helped his game.”
It’s for that reason that Barrett has been granted a starting spot in a position that he isn’t overly familiar with, but one that will keep him on the field and will accommodate for two of the squad’s most indispensable players in Beauden and Mo’unga.
In doing so, that seems to adhere to Foster’s tactical approach of keeping all his best players on the park, even if it means fielding them astray from their best positions.
“The thing is we still want to keep him in that space. I don’t want him to go in his shell and I want him to be influential on our park. The more times he can be involved, the better for us,” Foster said.
That isn’t to say that he won’t feature for the All Blacks at fullback, a position not too dissimilar to his new wing role, over the coming weeks.
How Jordie adapts to what’s required of him at fullback in the national set-up, which sounds different to that of what was asked of him at the Hurricanes, will be the determining factor in that positional shift.
“Can he? Yes he can. Is it his strength? No it’s not. But, is he working on it? Yes,” Foster said when asked if the younger Barrett is capable of slipping in to fill one of the playmaking roles as part of New Zealand’s 10-15 axis.
“So the answer is that’s a requirement of our game, and so he’s working hard in that space, but I’m not worried about putting him in the 15 jersey.
“I think I said he’s been the form 15, there’s no doubt about that. We’ve been impressed with him, and that’s why he’s on the field.
“We’ll look at ways to incorporate that into our game, but, in terms of going forward, that’s his work-on as it is [for] the likes of Damian [McKenzie].”
And what does the man himself think of being at the centre of the big selection shock leading into the first test of the year?
“Any opportunity, like I said, to start for the All Blacks is massive, and I’m not going to fight over it with my brother,” Jordie said.
“He’s got the jersey and I’m just looking at the things I can do on the wing to help the team hopefully get the win on the weekend.
“Look, [there’s] a lot of the same principles as fullback on the wing, and I’ll just be looking to be strong on the wing on Sunday.”
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