For a player who made the ‘unbelievable’ a regular occurrence over the last three years, the magic and aura around the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year has slowly dissipated in 2019.
The freakish plays have not yet materialised, the otherworldly superpowers that can manufacture long-range tries out of thin air have gone missing. Barrett seemingly had a hat with an endless supply of rabbits in it, pulling out at least one a week to dazzle the rugby world with miraculous plays.
He had an instinctual gift of premonition, to know where the ball would bounce, the precise moment a pass would be thrown, how any situation would unfold and where he needed to be placed to capitalise on it.
This unique skill would surface at opportune times, mostly in transition plays on the back of opposition mistakes or kick returns, striking when the game was in its most chaotic state. He was playing at a different level, reading the game in advance and using his foresight to cheat the opposition of their ball. This, among all his gifts, has been notably absent so far this season.
Not only is this superpower missing, everything is telling us his running game isn’t what it was – he is breaking tackles less, making less breaks – finding it harder to torch teams with his speed and find the open field.
In 2016 at the height of his powers, he was breaking the line every 7.3 runs in Super Rugby. So far this season, it is a very human-like one in 23.7 runs. Even last year, it was still a very lethal one in every 10.1 carries. It is a similar tale with the number of defenders beaten, one beaten every 7.9 runs, up from one every 5.3 last year.
This was always going to happen as he aged, as speed is one asset that inevitably depreciates, but whether this is definitely that apex moment for Barrett’s running game at 28-years-old is an unknown. There are too many variables that enable a running game, such as the quality of the platform being laid, but we also have one very unique situation this season.
It wasn’t just Barrett who was seemingly stripped of his powers – the excitement machine Damian McKenzie, the most dynamic attacking player in Super Rugby over the last three years, was also unlike his usual self early in the season before being moved back to fullback. It was there he found his legs, and re-found his mojo after a few games.
Both key All Blacks were the subject of pre-season resting, and Barrett himself was given an extended break in the off-season. In addition to protocols around the early entry into Super Rugby, Chiefs coach Colin Cooper explained that All Blacks had ‘no pre-season either’, a reference to the omission from the gruelling conditioning programme players go through over the summer to hit their peak physical condition.
The effects of ‘dropping cold’ into a season are logically hindering Barrett’s running game, and behind a young developing pack, he is not finding the space and half-gaps he used to. Without exploding into the season tapering off a heavy off-season programme, he isn’t his normal game-breaking self.
Coming into the season undercooked is a sacrifice for a longer-term goal, and that shouldn’t be lost when judging his form.
In his third match back against the Chiefs in Hamilton, there were signs that he was warming up, even on a day where rugby was an afterthought. His backfield battle with McKenzie was an epic game of aerial ping-pong, as both playmakers one-upped each other in search of finding the grass and touchline, or the broken-field opportunity to run it back from deep.
There was the sleight of hand to play a short ball to Matt Proctor through the Chiefs’ 10-12 channel that resulted in the Hurricanes’ first try from an early scrum play. He toiled all night from the back of a faltering set-piece, using motion from alignment directly behind the scrum to create mismatches on either side and take what the Chiefs offered.
There were passages of play that began to string the Hurricanes together, but only in spurts. The contest ended in a 23-all draw in a match they thought they ought to have won. This result was still positive in the context of their season – beating the Chiefs in Hamilton is something the Hurricanes have historically struggled with.
Against the Stormers a week later, despite a full-scale set-piece meltdown at the hands of a Springbok-laden pack, the Hurricanes escaped the set-piece web of the visitors just enough to come away with the result.
Late in the game, Barrett’s out-of-hand kicking helped close the game by driving kicks down the middle, keeping the ball in play and taking the Stormers’ lineout out of the equation, at least for any opportunities to piggyback back downfield from maul penalties. They still managed to get two opportunities from the corner in the last ten minutes but the Hurricanes stood firm.
Then came the embarrassing 32-8 home loss against the Crusaders, a battle of fundamentals that was too much to overcome after the Hurricanes put themselves in an early hole and the breakdown became unworkable.
Barrett was put in a box by the Crusaders defence, registering five metres on 11 carries with a swarm of red engulfing him. There was no space and off the back of slow-ball, nowhere to go. Two intercepts headlined the performance but there were execution errors across the park from everyone in a forgettable night.
Under the roof of Forsyth Barr on Friday night, the Hurricanes still dealt with similar issues up front but found personnel match-up advantages in their favour.
The undersized Highlanders backline were breached early and often. The lack of clinical passing left a number of points off the board for the Hurricanes, and it was the Highlanders who scored first. If not for some brilliance from Ardie Savea, they would have gone into the half down by seven.
When the home side scored off another lineout maul to put themselves up 28-17 with a quarter of the game to go, it seemed like it would spell the end of the Hurricanes’ hopes, and perhaps the season.
A lost lineout lead to another kicking duel with Marty Banks, and this time Barrett put trust in Ben Lam who found a favourable size match-up against Tei Walden on the counter-attack, busting through and blowing past Marty Banks and Kayne Hammington, beating three of the Highlanders inside backs on the way to setting up Savea’s second.
This is exactly what the Hurricanes are built for, with the ability for power athletes to create game-changing plays even when everything isn’t going right.
Five minutes later the Hurricanes received a midfield scrum 20 metres in and got the defensive setup that Barrett has made a living off in recent years – two defenders on the blind, three to the open side with the halfback providing inside cover in a slide defence system. The Hurricanes had a full compliment to the open side, giving them a distinct numbers advantage that way.
This is the setup that brings Barrett’s running game to the forefront, an opportunity with extra space to play direct and put the pressure on the inside cover from the halfback and on outside guys to trust the inside cover.
Three steps onto the flat ball from Perenara and Barrett approaches top speed quickly, a slight look to the outside gives the defence a cue the ball is going wide, while a couple of half-pump fakes sells the potential pass.
He feels the drift of Walden and young halfback Folau Fakatava underestimates Barrett’s acceleration, leaving a window. A slight cut off the left into the gap leaves Fakatava empty-handed forcing Walden to break ranks and make the tackle around Barrett’s waist.
Walden’s clean-up tackle opens the lane for the power-packed Ngani Laumape, giving him an open-field opportunity running off Barrett’s outside shoulder, and Barrett calmly produces a backhand flick to set him free. Cutting back twice, Laumape scores another breakaway highlight-reel try and lifts the Hurricanes into the lead 31-28. Just like that, Barrett comes up with a big play in a big moment at a pivotal moment in the season.
Whatever territorial advantage Barrett seemed to earn through his out-the-hand kicking, the Hurricanes seemed to invite the Highlanders right back through mistakes and penalties. Even right down to the last possession, running pistons to run the clock out, the Hurricanes gave the Highlanders one last shot but held on for an ugly, but a crucial, win on the road.
Against the Chiefs in Hamilton and the Highlanders in Dunedin, Barrett kicked 100% off the tee in what became decisive in the result of either clash, and has maintained close to an 80% mark this season proving doubters of his goal kicking reliability wrong. His out-of-the-hand kicking from the back has been clinical, reviving the spiral punt to great effect finding distance and turf in behind the defence.
The highlight-reel plays aren’t happening for him but with the execution errors that are plaguing the Hurricanes right now, they need their 10 to provide some stability in the territory battle, which he is doing so.
The lightning-fast surface in Dunedin also gave Barrett the platform to re-find his running game, and he found his best production of the year clocking up 120 run metres, while offering a hand in a number of line breaks and finding one himself, showing signs that the early season sluggishness is starting to subside.
In a disrupted season with the team still finding their best form, the Hurricanes have fought through to a 5-2-1 record at the bye week. Although they will have to rely on other teams to knock over the Crusaders in order to win back the number one seed, they aren’t in a bad spot considering they haven’t reached their potential.
After winning the title in 2016, the Hurricanes were probably guilty of peaking early in the season and dropping away late in both 2017 and 2018, opening both seasons with long winning streaks before fades down the stretch and semi-final exits.
That cannot be said of this season, which could be a blessing in disguise. There are no illusions about where this team needs to improve, but if they do in the second-half of the season, it could give Barrett the platform to peak at the right time for the Hurricanes and for the All Blacks heading into the international season.
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