Short-term pain for long-term gain. That’s how the Blues are viewing Beauden Barrett’s Japanese sojourn next season.
The Blues always knew there was a catch in hooking the big fish that is Barrett from the Hurricanes.
They understood Barrett would take a one-season sabbatical at the front end of his four-year agreement with New Zealand Rugby that takes him through to the next World Cup in 2023.
The only question was which overseas club would snare Barrett for 2021, before he returns to the Blues and All Blacks.
Japan, as the destination of choice for elite All Blacks wanting to cash in, was the preferred option, and the Milton Haig-coached Suntory Sungoliath have now landed Barrett’s services on a deal thought to be worth $1.5 million.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 2, 2020
“We knew about it last year when he signed the contract so it’s been very transparent from day one,” Blues coach Leon MacDonald said. “We’ve always been planning hence we’ve taken extra 10s in our squad.
“Even to the point we knew Beauden wasn’t going to be here next year there was a little bit of that decision making around keeping Otere Black at 10 and Beauden at fullback to help grow Otes for next year as well.
“He goes with our blessings, really, because he has earned the right and we know we’re going to get him back for two more years once he returns so we’re thrilled to have him involved in the long term.”
Midway through this year, Blues fans are only beginning to enjoy the sight of Barrett stalking the backfield. While he’s yet to unleash his dynamic running game Barrett’s composure and tactical kicking influence has been profound in his first three Super Rugby Aotearoa victories.
Losing Barrett next season won’t sit well with everyone, but in the modern age it’s the new norm when attempting to retain New Zealand’s leading players. Brodie Retallick has skipped two Super Rugby seasons with the Chiefs, which includes this year’s All Blacks campaign, in his deal with Kobe Steelers, while Sam Whitelock has just returned from Japan after he stayed on following the World Cup.
From Dan Carter to Richie McCaw, Ben Smith, Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu, New Zealand Rugby has long embraced sabbaticals as a tool to bridge salary gaps and help prolong careers.
The alternative is watching the likes of Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Lima Sopoaga sign long-term agreements abroad and become ineligible for the All Blacks.
“It makes sense – we don’t want them to leave our shores for good,” MacDonald said. “A little bit of short term pain in between World Cups allows them to come back and play rugby in New Zealand for New Zealand at the peak of their careers.
“It’s always disappointing when you lose players at 28, 29, 30 when probably their best rugby is being played at that age and they’re contributing the most back to the group with all their experience and learning so to have them involved in the latter part of their career is really important to New Zealand rugby.
“They’ve done a great job in terms of retaining some of their talent.”
Players coming and going from squads can unsettle success. There’s an element of adjustment that comes with getting up to speed and settling into specific structures and game plans. The Blues will undoubtedly be an inferior side without Barrett next year, but MacDonald downplayed the juggling act they signed up to.
“There’s very limited disruption. We have players with long term injuries all the time. It’s very much commonplace in the rugby environment. You just adapt, react, back your squad and make sure you’ve got enough depth.”
With Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer on the books for next year the Blues won’t replace Barrett next season and MacDonald said extending Carter’s contract was not in their thinking.
While Black continues to drive the Blues from first five-eighth it’s difficult to see MacDonald switching Barrett from fullback before he leaves for Japan.
“Otes was playing good rugby pre-lockdown and fullback was a good way to introduce Beauden into our game without chucking him straight into the fire. Whether he stays there will depend on injuries, form, and what we want to achieve out of the game with our tactics.
“It was an easy decision to leave Otes at 10 knowing he’s there for next season as well and working alongside Beauden in terms of driving our game.
“It doesn’t mean they are going to stay there forever. Who knows? We’re not locking ourselves into any decisions around selection.”
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