Beauden Barrett’s selection was never in doubt, but that doesn’t mean Richie Mo’unga isn’t very, very good, writes Scotty Stevenson.
It is the nature of the All Blacks headline dominance that you cannot praise a player for his Super Rugby form without the conversation quickly turning to the ramifications for national selection. Put another way, it appears you can’t pay a bloke a compliment without seemingly putting down someone else. That is not how compliments are supposed to work, but in the case of Barrett v Mo’unga, and every other selection debate in the history of test rugby, that’s just the way it seems to be.
Beauden Barrett was never going to be dropped as the starting first five for the All Blacks. Not a chance. And he didn’t deserve to be, either. Richie Mo’unga knew that, and still does, and just as the praise for the Crusaders’ pivot should not have been misconstrued as an attack on Barrett, the selection of the latter for the first test is not an indictment on Mo’unga. Barrett has earned his three Adidas stripes in the black jersey, and the backline selections for Bledisloe One in Sydney this weekend give him the best chance to prove himself all over again.
Beauden Barrett could hardly have wished for a better unit to shine within. The All Blacks selectors, acutely aware of the importance of finely tuned mental preparation for big matches, would have been all over Barrett during the build up to this test. Rugby players – even the very good ones – need reassurance just like everyone else, and a track back through the comments of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen regarding the rise of Richie as a contender provides one with an insight into his desire to give Barrett all the breathing space he needs.
Breathing space is just what this backline offers him. The selection of Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue in the midfield gives Barrett clarity and consistency. Crotty has rarely been given his dues for the weapon he is. He can play the crash with the best of them, delivers absolute calmness on defence, and can distribute in tight spaces with an effortless efficiency. His offloads are all finesse with none of the flourish.
Outside Crotty, Jack Goodhue. Already one of the best low tacklers in the game, Goodhue has built a reputation for being one of the hardest men to get past. It is fair that his defence has become his calling card, but there should be no underestimating his vision on attack. Goodhue will accept any invitation to run with alacrity. His passing game – especially his long left-to-right – is a thing of rare beauty, and his acceleration has caught more than a couple of opponents on the hop.
That combination alone gives Barrett options to play. There were hints during Barrett’s truncated French series that the coaching staff wanted him more actively involved in shaping the attack, utilising an adjusted pod structure to get the best out of his eye for the opportunity. Expect him to build his possession count in this game, with Crotty and Goodhue on hand as carry options and decoy runners.
The selection of Ben Smith at fullback is also a comfort for the All Blacks first five. Barrett will know that Smith’s unrivalled ability to cover the backfield and to spark counter-attack plays (Naholo has been his partner in crime in this department at the Highlanders and their pairing in this test is no selectorial fluke) means he can focus on setting up the next attack wave, safe in the knowledge that this allows him to play the game a couple of moves ahead of the defence. This is the purple patch for a pivot, operating in the very near future as opposed to staying in the present.
Will the Wallabies target Barrett? Of course they will. They will be thinking that all this talk about Mo’unga may have got to him at some subconscious level. They will attempt to do what good teams do: take out the king and wait for the castle to fall. The problem for them is that that in the case of this All Blacks backline, the King has all of his men.
With their help, Barrett will be ready to reign again on Saturday.
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