Jordie Barrett at 12 can provide what has been missing since Laumape left
Here’s hoping Ngani Laumape has a magnificent second-coming as a test footballer.
This column is ostensibly about Jordie Barrett and whether he might make a decent fist of second five-eighth, but let’s linger on Laumape for a little while.
I reckon Laumape was done a disservice by the All Blacks. Never fully embraced as a valued member of that squad, he was forever told of what he had to work on.
He was, as they like to say, something of a ‘one-trick pony’. Never mind that the trick – if we can call skittling defenders a trick – was a really good one, Laumape wasn’t a serious contender to start games for the All Blacks because he couldn’t kick consistently well off both feet, wasn’t an accomplished ball-player and wasn’t the eyes and ears of his first five-eighths’ often enough.
They were all said about Ma’a Nonu once upon a time, but he turned out all right.
Not Laumape, though. Having been an All Blacks afterthought, he was low-balled at contract time and now earns his coin elsewhere.
The All Blacks lack a midfield threat these days. So much so that they insist on trying Rieko Ioane there, regardless of the lengthy list of ‘work-ons’ he has in his own game.
All of which brings us back to Jordie Barrett.
There’s an element of robbing Peter to pay Paul, with regard to Barrett’s mooted shift from fullback to second five-eighth. For all that he might bring to midfield, a gaping hole is potentially created at the back.
Put simply, Barrett wants to play second-five, probably can play second-five and – in this era where stars seem to call their own shots – will inevitably end up playing second-five.
I like the idea of Barrett in midfield. He loves contact, be it with ball-in-hand or on defence, which is a decent start.
But he also has size and an offload and, in that regard, isn’t dissimilar to Sonny Bill Williams.
The Williams of 2012, when he briefly displaced Nonu from the All Blacks’ starting side, was a fine rugby player. Overall, though, SBW’s best years were spent in rugby league.
But he was always a threat, whether he carried the ball or ran a decoy. That ability to offload in traffic or pass at the line never left him, even if he didn’t have the impact in defence that his league days suggested he might.
Barrett played a bit of schoolboy rugby league and even mooted a move to the NRL, in a recent podcast.
Now, we know that’ll never happen, but that discussion was more in the context of his skillset and how it might suit the 13-man game. Barrett talked of wanting to defend in the front line, where the “grub’’ that’s inside him would revel in the physicality.
The All Blacks need to try something in midfield.
I have some sympathy with David Havili, who spent much of the test season at 12, in the sense of the role he was given and the quality of ball he got.
You feel that in a better-coached side, Havili might shine. As it is, he rather underwhelmed in 2021.
Anton Lienert-Brown is brave and industrious, but maybe not keeping opposition coaches up at night. Quinn Tupaea didn’t let anyone down, Jack Goodhue will come back and Braydon Ennor is a nice player on his day, but I come back to that word threat.
The more defences rushed up on the All Blacks this year, the more you wished the team had Laumape to keep opponents honest.
An intellectual dislike of straight, hard running seems to exist within the New Zealand game. It’s as if we feel there’s a moral superiority to wanting to finesse our way through or around teams, rather than confront them head-on.
Even the forwards seem to be discouraged from carrying up the middle.
Having Jordie Barrett at second five-eighth doesn’t suddenly change that mindset, but it does introduce a bigger, more robust body. As much as anything, he wants to play there, which is half the battle.
Should that shift eventuate, then Will Jordan appeals as the obvious fullback. Or Havili, whose stated preference is to play in that position.
If Damian McKenzie wants to concentrate on first five-eighth now, then it could be that we’ve seen the last of him at this level.
Thankfully, it appears as if we will see more of Laumape, though. Just in the red of Tonga, from 2023 onwards.
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