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Scott Barrett doesn't belong at blindside but his World Cup role is crucial

By Adam Julian
(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

When the All Blacks won Rugby World Cup 2015 Luke Romano was one of the most important players.

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That sounds like a strange thing to say given he only played in the easy pool wins against Namibia and Tonga.

Internally however Romano was charged with analysing and running opposition lineout plays at training. He did a good job – the All Blacks didn’t lose a single lineout in the finals and led the tournament in lineout steals.

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The 2015 starting pair of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick has endured. Together they have played an incredible 63 Test matches. They are the most successful locking duo in international rugby history.

Nipping at the heels of the redoubtable veterans is Scott Barrett, a formidable lock in his own right with 32 starts in the second row and another 22 appearances from the bench in his most familiar position.

Barrett is world-class and would almost certainly start for any other country. He’s a beast in Super Rugby for the Crusaders inspiring the fabled franchise to three consecutive titles since becoming captain in 2020 having played in the triumphs between 2017 and 2019 too.

Unfortunately, three doesn’t fit into two so what to do with Barrett? He’ll likely be on the bench as third lock cover which goes without saying but as a senior member of the team, he could assume a role like Romano’s – explicit homework where his skill and intellect are most valuable.

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Whitelock, Retallick and likely Captain Sam Cane are aging warriors. A potential seven Tests in seven weeks is an exhausting schedule but fixtures against Italy, Uruguay, and Namibia are unlikely to present too much difficulty.

Give Barrett the captaincy in those Tests like a midweek captain of the past. It will allow essential but injury-prone starters to rest, imbue Barrett with a sense of responsibility he commands with his quality and possibly serves as a preview to the future. It’s hard to imagine Barrett not being All Blacks skipper in 2024 under Scott Robertson. Why not give him a head start?

Since Jerome Kaino retired in 2017 Liam Squire, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii, Vaea Fifta, Luke Jacobson, and Ardie Savea have played blindside flanker in a Test match.

Barrett has played four Test matches in the six-jersey too. The 2019 semi-final loss to England is a well-documented disaster. Barrett was thrown a hasty hospital pass that he mishandled.

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After a four-year hiatus from six, he was reemployed, and the results are mixed. The 42-19 victory over Ireland at Eden Park was a pass but in Melbourne, the All Blacks were outplayed by Wallabies loosies Pete Samu, Rob Valetini, and Rob Leota in an extremely fortuitous 39-37 victory. Barrett was back on the blindside against England in Twickenham where honours were shared 25-25.

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There is some commentary suggesting Barrett is the solution for the All Blacks six woes. Unless absolute emergency necessities this should not happen.

Haven’t we learned from the past? Positional switches at the World Cup have often led to failure. Remember Christian Cullen in 1999, Leon MacDonald in 2003, and Mils Muliaina in 2007.

Less well-known, but somewhat infamously, Colin Meads switched from lock to eight against Australia in Wellington in 1964. The All Blacks suffered a 20-5 defeat, the worst loss of Meads’s career.

Rugby is a role-based game; despite the many styles and strengths of players in a position, the specific role must be nailed for the other aspects of a player to matter.

Blindside Flanker has brought us talents as diverse as Reuben Thorne and Vaea Fifita. Thorne was a ‘tight’ variety of six who made a herculean 47 tackles for the Crusaders in the 2000 Super Rugby final victory against the Brumbies. Fifita was a gifted running forward whose incredible try-scoring burst against Argentina in 2017 was reminiscent of Michael Jones, Ian Kirkpatrick, and Kel Tremain, but too short-lived.

What is the core role of a blindside? Apart from doing ‘forward stuff’ – ball-carrying, tackling, hitting rucks, scrummaging, mauling, jumping, and lifting in lineouts – there is one very specific requirement: the ability to defend off the back of a scrum.

This is far harder than it appears – loosies are supposed to have their heads down pushing in a dynamic moving scrum where they might be twisted any which way. They need to know what is happening in the opposing backline, when the ball is exiting the scrum, where the opposition halfback is, and what the opposition 8 is doing, whilst communicating with their fellow loosies and halfback.

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Barrett played strongly on the blindside for the Crusaders against the Hurricanes on June 3 but when his side was down by three points with eight minutes remaining, he failed to stop Braydon Iose from scoring a try from a scrum.

Sluggish lateral movement and a lack of experience shutting down dynamic runners from the scrum was the cause. It was a moment that cost the Crusaders any chance of victory. A true blindside needs to explode sideways off the scrum, shoulders square to their line, ready to drift, rush, chase, and chop, balanced, aggressive, like a cross between a ballerina and a grizzly bear.

Why focus on this when it is such a small part of the job?

Tries in modern rugby, despite being more plentiful than ever before, are dominated by attack off set pieces. Tragically the proliferation of humdrum rolling mauls explains part of this reality but the other reason for set-piece tries being so prominent is the greater space to operate within from scrums. More than half the players on the field are huddled in a small area with backlines separated by 10 metres, and six players from each team spread across 70 metres.

Grégory Alldritt, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Taulupe Faletau, Alex Dombrandt, Jasper Wiese, and Rob Valetini are all exceptional eights that would be licking their lips at the prospect of targeting an inexperienced blindside.

Damien Traille to Frédéric Michalak. The forward pass that sunk a nation. France beat the All Blacks 20-18 in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final with Wayne Barnes non-call the enduring memory.

Study the tape and attack the cognac afterwards. The try could have been shut down had it been defended properly.

Halfback Brendon Leonard gets lost in no man’s land impotently challenging the French number 8. Openside Richie McCaw is too slow to get across to make a dominant tackle, allowing the famous pass from Traille to Michalak.

Meanwhile the All Blacks 8, Rodney So’oialo, lackadaisically hangs around at the back of the scrum until it becomes clear that the French have a four-on-two out wide, where he proceeds to jog back. Replacement blindside Chris Masoe doesn’t seem any more urgent. Masoe typically a seven is positioned at six and he is AWOL the whole time. Masoe only started once in 20 Tests on the blindside.

Destin tentant.

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