Before the lockdown in New Zealand, when special events had real meaning and days of the week were individual entities rather than near carbon copies of each other, Beauden Barrett had marked out two in particular.
One was a first game in 10 years for his Coastal club in Taranaki, with brother Kane as coach and another, Blake, playing alongside him.
Barrett had planned on playing for Coastal against their nearest rivals Southern last weekend. It would have been a return to light up a province.
The other was his Blues debut. It was supposed to be a late-afternoon Easter Saturday match at Eden Park against his former Hurricanes franchise and good mates such as TJ Perenara and Dane Coles, plus another brother, Jordie. That would have lit up a nation, if not the rugby world.
Instead, like the rest of us, the All Blacks playmaker is confined to his house (and in his case, trips to a local park for kicking practice) wondering when or if life will get back to normal.
In an interview with the Herald, he said that like us he’s glued to the daily updates of coronavirus infections and willing them to come down. Like us, he’s proud of New Zealand’s progress.
The All Blacks playmaker twice recognised as the best player in the world has never been one to take much notice of what the media is saying but that’s changed. We’re all fans of graphs now, especially those featuring declining curves.
“Over the last month at least I’ve actually been following the media quite a bit because it’s obviously pretty serious and important to stay informed – you have to do the right things and so on,” he told the Herald.
“It is pleasing that the number is dropping pretty quickly. Obviously we got it in the nick of time so hopefully we can be out soon and start giving everyone what they want – to get back on the footy field.”
Barrett is preparing as if his Blues debut will come sooner rather than later and that while two special occasions had passed everyone by, he said he had many reasons to be thankful, including his decision to re-sign with New Zealand Rugby for another four years rather than take up a lucrative contract overseas.
The United Kingdom and France, two of the European countries worst hit by the coronavirus, would have been leading contenders for his signature.
Most professional athletes are optimistic by nature and Barrett, who said he may still play for Coastal this year, is no exception.
“This was my one opportunity in nine or 10 years to play for my club which is something us professional players don’t do enough of.
“That was going to be a pretty exciting game to play – with my brother as coach and another brother who would have been playing. You never know, I could still get one in this year.
“Any time an All Black returns and plays club rugby it’s good for the game.”
With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cautiously optimistic about New Zealand’s containment of COVID-19 and a potential relaxing of the national lockdown a fortnight away, Barrett’s Blues debut in what is likely to be a Kiwi-only Super competition may not be too far off.
It may not be against the Hurricanes at Eden Park and it almost certainly won’t be in front of a crowd, but Barrett, who hasn’t played a game since the World Cup, will take what he can get. He’s like most of us in that respect.
“I’m really looking forward to playing the first one and it doesn’t matter who it’s against,” he said. “If it was the Hurricanes it would have killed two birds with one stone and it would probably be the best way to get over the whole thing. That time will come eventually.
“I think I’ll be in a good position to hit the ground running. There’s nothing like playing for match fitness, particularly at test and Super Rugby level where the game is played at such a high pace. It will always take a couple of 80 minutes to really get up to full match fitness but a lot of my teammates are in that boat now. Then there’s the mental side and decision-making side. I haven’t been put under pressure in a game since the World Cup.
“That can only be brought on through training which I had a taste of for the couple of weeks I trained with the Blues.
“Like a lot of Blues fans, I was getting really excited and already starting to think about playoffs and so on. Even the players were starting to realise their potential. They were showing a lot of self-belief and trust in each other and what Leon [MacDonald] and Tana [Umaga] were doing.”
The Blues had won four in a row when the season was halted after their 43-10 victory over the Lions at Eden Park on March 14, including a win over the Hurricanes in Wellington.
They may forever stay fourth on the 2020 table. But while Barrett has heard several theories about a domestic competition, “there’s probably no point over-thinking it and that’s the way I’m approaching it.
“I’m just staying ready physically and trying to stay calm mentally so that whenever the bosses decide what’s happening we’re ready to go and locked in. It’s easier said than done. Some people don’t cope well with uncertainty but for me, I’ve had a bit of time off and haven’t returned yet so I’m still in the same mode – I’m building.”
Barrett’s break after the World Cup bronze medal victory over Wales in Tokyo on November 1 was built into his contract in order to extend his All Black career to the next one in France in 2023. He has another sabbatical clause to be taken by mutual agreement with New Zealand Rugby and told the Herald it was currently “business as usual”, hinting that he could forego it if he plays little rugby this year.
There’s no doubt though that he is pleased he stayed here with wife Hannah. “I truly believe there’s no better place to play rugby… the quality of rugby is so good and when things go bad, pear-shaped, with a pandemic like this, there’s no better place, I believe, than New Zealand.”
– By Patrick McKendry, NZ Herald
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now