Since all-time legend Dan Carter vacated the 10 jersey for the All Blacks following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, basically one man has followed in his footsteps.
Only now, on the eve of the World Cup, has the plan with Barrett seemingly changed on the surface, with Barrett playing the last three tests at fullback with Richie Mo’unga at 10, in a move described by Hansen as a way to get both players on the field at the same time.
So, does it really matter what number Beauden Barrett wears in Steve Hansen’s set-up?
The first five-eighth has been part of New Zealand’s backfield in defence for quite some time now, as part of a two-fullback system that patrols the pitch in halves.
Playing with two fullbacks at all times makes it very difficult for opposition kickers to find the grass when kicking long, and also allows the wingers to play high up in the line and circumvent kick-chasers through light contact to limit contestable kicks.
Using a 10 in the backfield as a second fullback also provides another link man for counter-attacking opportunities, which is an integral part of All Blacks’ rugby.
The ball can be moved across the field faster to attack developing space in the fragmented kick-chase line. Just having one man back that has to potentially wait for re-loading wingers and other supporting players limits the range and speed at which you can spark counter attacks.
But this two-back system puts extra responsibility on the 10 to do as a fullback does.
There are certain must-have requirements – speed, great one-on-one tackling ability to close down line breaks, an out-of-hand kicking game and aerial skills to diffuse bombs and box kicks to name a few.
Luckily, Beauden Barrett has all of these in spades: natural height at 6’1″ to compete in the air, punting range of 60-metres plus out-of-hand plus a full bag of kicks in the arsenal, and burning speed to close space and chase down anyone.
When Barrett plays at 10, he only defends in the front line for the few phases following the set-piece before joining the two-man backfield where his skills are better utilised.
The reality is even if he’s playing at first five, he plays as a fullback on defence anyway – as required by any 10 playing for the All Blacks. There is no material difference in this area of the game when wearing 10 or 15 on his back except for being in the backfield 100% of the time versus 95%.
We have seen the All Blacks adapt in 2019 towards phase play patterns that create fast width and reduce forward carrying.
These new patterns provide a high volume of first receiver touches for the ‘drivers’, who are the backs tasked with organising pods and playing first receiver (often the 10, 12 or 15).
With Barrett at 15 in this new system, we have seen him as a distributor at first receiver during phase play just as frequently as Mo’unga.
Against the Springboks in Wellington, Mo’unga took the lion share of first receiver touches (37.0%) over Barrett (20.7%), in Perth against the Wallabies they took the same amount each (34.9%).
At the rain-soaked Eden Park in the final Bledisloe, Barrett (14.5%) edged Mo’unga (12.9%) as the latter’s night ended early with a shoulder injury.
The crazy amount of combined first receiver touches for Mo’unga and Barrett during the first two tests (57.7% and 69.8%) illustrates just how much load there is for the two playmakers in these ‘fast-width’ patterns that skip on forward carries.
The much lower amount (27.4% combined) in the 36-0 win over the Wallabies shows a reversion back to a tighter game around Aaron Smith using forward runners off 9 and more kicking in the wet conditions at Eden Park.
The change in the required distribution load under the ‘fast width’ patterns means Barrett gets as much time at first receiver as he would normally (30-40%) under a 1-3-3-1 or any system geared for more carries off 9.
The system change to ‘fast width’ patterns may have, in part, been made to accommodate having both Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga on the field at the same time to avoid either of them being ‘iced’ out of the game for long periods.
However, there is still a valid argument that either player would better off taking on the whole or most of the 60-70% load of first receiver duties, giving them a better feel for the game over the whole eighty minutes.
This is the one area of the game where the role materially changes enough between the first five and fullback.
Barrett no longer is the first receiver, removing some of his capacity as a playmaker and distributor from set-piece plays.
Riche Mo’unga takes over at standoff for about 80-90% of the plays, barring the limited occasions a 12 carry or winger carry is called.
Barrett plays the traditional fullback role looking to link in at the end of play out wide, inject on a wider running line, or waiting for a touch on the second or third phase.
Shedding the Supersub label
For a long time, it seemed that Barrett was destined to be pigeon-holed as a supersub utility, starting only 8 times in his first 36 appearances in the black jersey.
His versatility value coming off the bench covering two positions was seen in the public eye as greater than his ability to start at either fullback or first five-eighth and as the post-Carter era begun he continued this role (albeit briefly).
Over this World Cup cycle, Barrett’s dual position coverage isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ for a 10 anymore, it’s fast becoming a ‘must-have’ in a number of ways as the game evolves and positional requirements continue to converge.
That has placed Barrett’s development arc, first as fullback and secondly as a first five, perfectly where demand for versatility is peaking at his position at 10.
If he does play at 15, most of what he does at 10 is transferrable and still required by the system, making his role as a 15 marginally different from that at 10.
If Dan Carter is the purest 10 the game has ever seen, Barrett is building a legacy based on playing two positions at once and being the best at it as the quasi-fullback becomes the norm for any first five.
Bill Ellis podcast discuss the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup squad:
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