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The Jordie Barrett conundrum - a prodigious talent...

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The Jordie Barrett conundrum - a prodigious talent who can't play his natural position

On a Tuesday night in May 2016, the New Zealand under-20 side were playing their Australian counterparts on the Gold Coast in the first of two warm-up matches prior to the World Rugby under-20 championships of that year.

One tall, eerily familiar player stood out from the Baby Blacks wearing the number 12 jersey. He was fearless in defence with seemingly no regard for his 6’5 frame, flying out of the line like a missile. The crowd groaned with empathy for each ball carrier, at the same time feeling amazement at the ferociousness of every shot he seemed to land.

He had a booming leg that could drive the ball 60-metres downfield, he kicked goals as straight as an arrow, ran relentless lines and showed all the ball skills required of a talented midfielder. There was something about his mechanics that also gave you the feeling of déjà vu.

“Conversion by number 12, Jordie Barrett,” rang out over the announcer system after he slotted his first goal.

There was another Barrett boy. Now everything made sense – those stylistic tendencies were unmistakably close to Beauden. Anyone who watched those two matches against Australia left knowing that they would see that kid again soon playing in the professional ranks, but no one could have foreseen just how quickly.

The rise would be so fast that there was no time to process it. In little more than twelve months time, he would pull on the All Black 15 jersey and take on the British & Irish Lions in the third test as a fresh 20-year-old.

Just two seasons later it feels like he has been a regular for years, but the 21-year-old has yet to settle in his preferred position and his nine-test career is just getting started. But after committing to NZR on just a one-year deal for 2019, just what will happen with Jordie Barrett and how did he get stuck in positional purgatory?

With Jordie coming out of high school, the Crusaders had done their homework. They already had secured Scott Barrett as a talented locking prospect and younger brother Jordie was now on the way south. He moved to Christchurch to study at Lincoln University (LU), following in the footsteps of older brother Scott.

Despite missing selection for any of the New Zealand schoolboy squads while at Francis Douglas Memorial College, his pedigree alone was worth betting on – with father Kevin a provincial legend with Taranaki, brothers Kane and Scott playing Super Rugby and older brother Beauden Barrett already a household name with the All Blacks.

After finishing 5th at the World Rugby under-20 championships in June 2016, where Barrett was a standout prospect, he returned to Christchurch to Lincoln Uni to play the remainder of the club season for the Rams.

Barrett’s midfield partner that club rugby season was another young Crusaders prospect, Jack Goodhue. It seems hard to believe, but a Barrett-Goodhue midfield combination was in the Crusaders’ pipeline and being prepped together at Lincoln.

In the semi-final down 10 points with five minutes to go, Barrett pulled a Houdini act, scoring two tries in two minutes and stealing the match for the Rams.

In the final, he scored 22 points as they hammered New Brighton 49-12. He seemed to have that same quality that special players have where they can swing a match by pulling off the unthinkable.

Jordie Barrett with the Rams in 2016 (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

After a standout Mitre 10 Cup campaign with Canterbury, the Super Rugby teams were circling and the hype train was in overdrive. The lure of joining brother Beauden at the Hurricanes proved too strong, and he opted to leave the Crusaders and sign with the franchise he watched his father play for growing up.

The sticking point was rumoured to be guaranteed playing time, which the Hurricanes were prepared to offer immediately, moving Jordie into the starting fullback position.

Linking up with Beauden in the Capital, the Hurricanes attack became prolific in 2017, even better than their 2016 championship-winning side. The aerial raids became a trademark – it was raining tries through cross-field kicks.

With the Barrett boys patrolling the backfield, any side wanting to play a territorial kicking game did so at their peril.

They could play ‘force back’ better than anyone, play the counter game and even use the odd dink over the top when the space in behind offered. They possessed an innate connection wired by a sixth sense where verbal communication was seldom required.

Jordie himself was a revelation and often showed moments of freakish skill, taking to Super Rugby like a duck to water. The Barrett brothers finished one and two in the try assists tallies for the season, while centres Ngane Laumape and Vince Aso finished one and two in tries scored, highlighting just how productive the Hurricanes attacking prowess was.

That early Super Rugby success has been both a blessing and catch-22 – forcing him further down a secondary positional path. After two years at the Hurricanes, he has only been used as a stopgap centre during times of injury. He is still yet to start a game in his natural position at second-five.

In life, you usually end up where you aim, and taking the opportunity at the Hurricanes meant playing fullback. If he plays 15 during Super Rugby, he will only be considered as a 15 by the All Blacks, yet doing so further hinders and delays his development as a midfielder.

The Hurricanes midfield options remain crowded for next season with Ngane Laumape, Vince Aso, and Matt Proctor still in the mix. The next generation is also on the way – Billy Proctor was signed to a record five-year deal and Peter Umaga-Jensen played at 12 this year leaving an uncertain midfield future for Barrett, which is perhaps why he only re-committed for one season despite NZR and the Hurricanes wanting more.

Jordie Barrett’s best chance of playing second-five in New Zealand post-2019 based on need, is ironically, at the Crusaders. With Ryan Crotty sure to move on the Crusaders will be looking to solidify that midfield partner for Goodhue, which at one point Barrett was earmarked for.

At this point in time, they will probably shift David Havili into second-five, opening up the fullback slot for Will Jordan or re-shuffle Goodhue to include Ngane Punivai.

Although the fit is there from a need point of view in 2020, it is hard to see the Crusaders giving him a second shot, and whether Barrett himself could leave the Hurricanes and play against them is also highly doubtful.

Whilst the Highlanders might be traditional rivals, Hurricanes-Crusaders has been the rivalry that often determines the balance of power in New Zealand and who gets home field advantage in the playoffs.

The Crusaders have only lost three times in the last two years and two of those losses have been to the Hurricanes. At least one of the two has featured in the Super Rugby final for four years straight. The matchup is firmly entrenched as the blockbuster ticket for New Zealand Rugby outside of the All Blacks.

With Jordie Barrett now locked in on one side of the rivalry, it would be a shock for him to jump ship when some part of his decision to join the Hurricanes in the first place was based on childhood ambition and family ties to the franchise.

An All Blacks test start on the right wing against Italy has further clouded Barrett’s positional future. It seems that the national selectors are preparing him to fulfill Ben Smith’s wing/fullback ‘safety net’ role long-term and Ian Foster’s recent assertion that they ‘see him as a back three player’ confirms that.

In order for his career trajectory to change, the Hurricanes will need to do it for him but that doesn’t look like happening before his one-year deal expires. He is still the best fullback on the roster and his skillset is ideal for the position. The signing of the experienced James Marshall will provide cover but Barrett must start when fit.

The Hurricanes would need a local fullback prospect from their feeder system to catch fire, which could well be Hawkes Bay product Danny Toala or this year’s New Zealand schools fullback Blair Murray – however, this could be years away.

His positional dilemma at the Hurricanes doesn’t seem to have an end in sight and until that switch happens, his career in the midfield further slips away.

New Zealand Schoolboy Rugby – The Season:

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The Jordie Barrett conundrum - a prodigious talent who can't play his natural position | RugbyPass