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Mouth-watering No 10 duel could pave the way for Richie Mo'unga elevation

By Tom Vinicombe
Richie Mo'unga. All Blacks v Fiji, Steinlager Series, international rugby union test match. FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Saturday 17 July 2021. © Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

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With Richie Mo’unga transitioning from an intense Super Rugby campaign straight into test football, and Beauden Barrett having spent the better part of a month on the training paddock after returning to New Zealand from Japan, it was no surprise that Mo’unga took hold of the All Blacks No 10 jersey at the start of the international season.

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Mo’unga started four of the All Blacks’ five opening tests in the No 10 jersey with Barrett providing back-up off the bench and it looked like the debate had finally been settled – Mo’unga was NZ’s first-choice playmaker.

But when the team travelled to Australia, Mo’unga remained at home awaiting the birth of his child, and Barrett reacquainted himself with the fly-half role over the course of the Rugby Championship, with Mo’unga only making his return in the final game of the competition off the bench against South Africa.

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While Mo’unga was handed to the No 10 jersey to take on USA, Barrett was ushered back into the starting line-up for Wales, reinforcing his position at the number one first five – although the fact that the game was Barrett’s 100th in the black jersey may have also played a role.

Against Italy this weekend, Mo’unga has again been entrusted with the keys to the backline and will be the 27-year-old’s final chance to stake his claim before the home stretch of NZ’s epic season, with key battles against Ireland and France looming.

Following the team announcement on Friday morning (NZT), Foster suggested that the door certainly wasn’t slammed shut on the No 10’s chances – or any of the team named to play Italy.

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“As a group of selectors, we’ve got a pretty clear plan for Ireland, but I’d be pretty surprised if there weren’t a number of players that start on Saturday that aren’t starting in one of the next two tests,” he said.

“I don’t see it being a closed door from whatever we do in the Irish test going into the French test. There’s two different styles of game there and we’ve got a number of options coming through.”

While Mo’unga’s decision to remain in NZ opened the door for Barrett, it was one that the All Blacks welcomed, and Mo’unga’s return to the squad has brought with it plenty of positives.

“He’s been great. We’re excited for him and his family with the birth of a baby, so there’s circumstances that the cards have been dealt in that space, and so he’s come back in and he’s been phenomenal,” Foster said.

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“I was massively impressed with him last week when it became a little bit of The Beaudy Show with 100 tests and that, but Richie’s support behind the scenes was phenomenal, so I’m delighted he’s about to play and I’m sure he’s going to play to his normal levels, if not even better. He’s determined, everyone’s competitive, and he’s like everyone else, and he’ll certainly be eyeing up some time in the next couple of weeks as well.

“We’ve been really pleased with him, liked what he brought off the bench, and now I know that he’s back in the groove with us 100 per cent. I’m looking forward to seeing him start.”

Given Barrett and Mo’unga are both players who operate with plenty of flare, the All Blacks might get a little taste of their own medicine against Italy this weekend, with Montpellier fly-half Paolo Garbisi a likely starter.

Whether it’s Garbisi or the more experienced Carlo Canna, the All Blacks won’t be caught unawares by the Azzurri.

“I haven’t seen a lot of him,” admitted Foster of Garbisi, “but we’ve been very impressed with what we do see.

“Italy’s had quite a number of young 10s come through in the last seven, eight years. You look at Tommaso Allen and [Carlo] Canna, you’ve got a few guys that have come through that almost want to express themselves really, really well, and they don’t seem to lack confidence when they get on the international stage.

“We kind of see those same qualities [in Garbisi], so we’re very watchful of that, and whilst there’s a young man who’s impressed us, we also want to make sure we apply a bit of pressure there too.”

The All Blacks will kick off their match with the Azzurri at 2:00pm CET on Saturday (2:00am NZT on Sunday morning).

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