The Mo'unga-Barrett debate for the All Blacks first five finally settled after Christchurch
It looks very much like the two-playmaker experiment will have to continue when the All Blacks (hopefully) resume action later in the year.
That is because both Richie Mo’unga, at No 10, and Beauden Barrett, at 15, MUST again be listed in the starting XV, all things being equal.
That should have been the thinking before last Saturday night’s epic Crusaders-Blues in Christchurch, but the Crusaders’ victory would have just cemented the thinking for two of the selectors, former first fives themselves, Ian Foster and Grant Fox.
Mo’unga’s brilliance and composure, in equal measure, in the last 20 minutes, sealed the contest for the Crusaders. Prior to that quarter, he had been quiet but solid enough. However, the selectors look closely at how the key men stand up when the pressure ramps up. Mo’unga showed his class when it mattered.
His heads-up kickoff to regather and surge forward was a prime example of his clear thinking and execution, while his six goals and two try assists with pinpoint passes further highlighted his undoubted ability.
Mo’unga has not just come of age after Saturday night. The bloke is 26, he has won three NPCs, three Super Rugby titles and has 17 Tests under his belt, including a Rugby World Cup campaign. In 2018 he was New Zealand’s Super Rugby player of the year. There is no risk attached to him.
As far back as 2014 he was showing his class for the New Zealand Under 20s, at both 10 and 15, funnily enough.
The man who would be king, Beauden Barrett, told the July Rugby News magazine that he wants to play at No 10 for the All Blacks. But in 2019, he started there in just two out of his 10 Tests.
Mo’unga’s claims were irrefutable, then and now, meaning the best attacking player in the world had to make his impact from the back. Why not? He runs like the wind, kicks well and is safe under the high ball.
There was much gnashing of teeth about the so-called failure of the ‘experiment’ after the All Blacks crashed out of the Rugby World Cup at the semifinals stage. Red herring. The All Blacks pack was muscled out of the game. That was the main reason for the defeat.
Barrett has taken his time to adjust to the Blues’ style at fullback. He is happy to fill a role as they are short on fullbacks and suddenly flush with pivots, Dan Carter amongst them.
But despite a useful first half by Otere Black in Christchurch, it has become abundantly clear that Barrett needs to be back in the No 10 jersey, if only to get his hands on the pill more, use his new-found left-foot punting skills to better effect and start to break on the outside like he does when at his irrepressible running best.
For all that, even if he does all that, it will not be enough for him to displace Mo’unga, unless he falls to injury.
Damian McKenzie, the next option, has not played first five all year for the Chiefs, while Josh Ioane, who debuted in black last season, is crocked and did not wear the Highlanders No 10 jersey at all pre-Covid.
Aaron Cruden was never a serious All Blacks consideration, while Black certainly was not, despite some overblown media reports. Jordie Barrett will be in the squad, surely, and he showed his wider versatility by playing first five against Namibia at the World Cup.
So in Mo’unga we trust. It is no great leap of faith to have this classy operator running the All Blacks’ cutter. Beauden Barrett will just have to slot in where he can for now. They’ll have to make it work.
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