New Zealand has a serious problem in the No 10 jersey
The long-running debate in New Zealand rugby has surrounded whether Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga is the right man to wear No 10 for the All Blacks. The unfortunate answer, however, is that neither of them might be suited to guide NZ to a World Cup next year.
Since Dan Carter retired from the international game, the All Blacks have struggled to find a truly world-class replacement.
Barrett, even at his best – when he was undoubtedly one of the top players in the world – was a square peg in a round hole. His running game is second to none and he might have a claim to being the fastest first receiver the world’s ever seen but when it comes to the core duties of a flyhalf – passing, kicking and playmaking, Barrett simply doesn’t compare with the likes of Carter, England’s Owen Farrell or Ireland’s Johnny Sexton.
Barrett’s greatest performances for the All Blacks came off the bench as an impact sub when he was able to make the most of searing pace – often at fullback.
In the years immediately following the 2015 World Cup, Barrett’s weaknesses in the No 10 jersey were easily overlooked because the All Blacks were generally able to get physical parity with their opposition, if not the upper hand, making things easier for the men in the backline. Make no mistake, Barrett never got an armchair ride – but he was certainly never under the pressure that he will find himself in now that England, Ireland and South Africa and stepped up their games.
With the fast-paced rush defence used by the top sides in the world putting incredible pressure on the first receiver, a calm, collected head is needed in the No 10 jersey now more than ever and that’s simply never been Barrett’s forte.
The man that’s been Barrett’s main competition at a national level is Mo’unga, who’s time and time again been one of the best players in Super Rugby and guided the Crusaders to four titles on the trot.
All the things you want from a No 10, Mo’unga possesses in droves – at least when he’s wearing red and black. When given the opportunity to run the cutter at test level, however, Mo’unga has failed to impress.
Some of that can be attributed to the different systems employed by Scott Robertson and Ian Foster, with the All Blacks demanding an ‘always on’ role from their first five, and some of that will come down to the same issue that will plague all NZ pivots, no matter how talented they are – getting a tougher ride behind an under-pressure pack – but in 22 starts for the All Blacks, 27-year-old Mo’unga has not yet stepped up to the mark.
The safe money would be on Barrett starting at No 10 for the All Blacks this season. He’s the experienced option and a considerably more physical player who defends as well as any other flyhalf in the world game. He’s also shown some trademark flashes of brilliance for the Blues this season – but he’s not done anything to suggest his game control has taken any consistent steps forward.
Against the Fijian Drua on Saturday evening, Barrett’s kicking was circumspect at the best of times – both in terms of when he kicked, and how he kicked. It’s an issue that’s been prevalent throughout his career and at 30 years of age and with probably just two more All Blacks campaigns left before he retires from the test arena, it’s unlikely things are going to change dramatically.
Can the All Blacks win next season’s World Cup with Barrett or Mo’unga in the driver suit? Absolutely. They both possess the X-factor that can set a game alight or create tries out of nowhere, but that’s effectively the type of play that NZ relied on last year – brilliant chips and chases from Will Jordan or intercepts from Rieko Ioane. Moments of magics can change games, but they can’t be reliably called upon three weeks in a row when the sudden death stages of the World Cup arrive in France.
Mo’unga might be the man tasked with wearing No 10 in 2024 and with four years of uninterrupted rugby at flyhalf for the All Blacks, he may yet find his feet in the role – but he’s certainly not taking to it like some of New Zealand’s world-class operators of the past. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being ‘only’ an amazing Super Rugby player and not being able to replicate that at the next level up – but it is becoming a problem for the All Blacks, especially when there aren’t any obvious heirs-apparent coming through the ranks.
The most promising young 10 to have plenty of first-class experience under his belt is Fergus Burke but his progression is blocked at the Crusaders. This year, Burke has mustered just two starts, which both came while Mo’unga was on extended leave at the beginning of the season. Coach Robertson still doesn’t trust Burke to close out tight matches and if Mo’unga does remain in NZ for the next six years, any chances of Burke developing into a big-game player are slim at best.
The likes of Ruben Love and Rivez Reihana have shown promise at first five during their formative years but have had few regular chances to grow into the role at Super Rugby level – and it’s not as if playing No 10 is an easy thing to just pick up late in the piece.
Around the rest of the country, Zarn Sullivan could be an option but it stuck at fullback for the Blues while men like Bryn Gatland, Mitch Hunt, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Stephen Perofeta have plateaued at Super Rugby level. Josh Ioane is perhaps the only experienced first five who is could step into the test arena but he’s struggled for consistency in recent seasons and at 26 years of age, is not much younger than Mo’unga.
In the pro era, it’s always been relatively obvious fairly early in the piece who the next pivot off the conveyor belt will be. Barrett and Aaron Cruden were waiting in the wings following Carter’s departure while Carter himself succeeded men like Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer. Now, it’s impossible to know.
A world-class first five-eighth has always been a hallmark of All Blacks sides in years gone by but it would be disingenuous to suggest New Zealand boast a player of such talent at present and without a dominant pack to make things easier for the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga, the All Blacks are in for a rough couple of years.
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