Former Blues hooker James Parsons is excited about how Beauden Barrett’s Top League experience will impact his return to New Zealand rugby later this year.
Barrett is currently on a six-month sabbatical with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan’s premier domestic competition and, while playing strictly at first-five, has helped guide his side to an unblemished record after six matches.
The 29-year-old has played a particularly important role in two Suntory’s most recent victories as he slotted an 81st minute penalty to defeat Kieran Read’s, Michael Hooper’s and Willie le Roux’s Toyota Verblitz 39-36 late last month.
He followed that up by scoring a 78th minute try to clinch a 33-26 win over a Toshiba Brave Lupus side that featured Matt Todd, Michael Leitch and Seta Tamanivalu last Saturday.
Barrett’s influence has been crucial in keeping Suntory’s undefeated start to the season alive as they pursue an unprecedented sixth Top League title, but Parsons is more interested in how his time abroad will affect his return to the Blues and All Blacks.
Asked on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod if Barrett will return to New Zealand better off as a result his stint in Japan, Parsons said the quality of the Top League, which he suggested is undervalued by many, will put the 88-test international in good stead.
“He looks like he’s pretty happy. He’s immersed himself in the culture and he’s still playing really good code,” Parsons, a Blues centurion and two-test All Black, said.
“I’ve commented on a couple of those Top League games and it’s of reasonable quality. It’s not just touch, as some people probably assume.
“I think that’s the best thing about Sky Sport televising a number of their games. It gives you a good insight to the quality of football being played up there.
“The first few weeks there were some blowout scores, but it’s started to really tighten up and he was crucial in a last-minute penalty against Toyota and obviously a last-minute try in last week’s one.
“If we use Sam Whitelock as an example, he’s come back humming, and you’d like to hope – well I’d really hope, from a Blues point of view and All Blacks point of view – that it’s the same for Beaudy, and, dare I say it, he’s looking great at No 10.”
Fellow panellist and Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall expanded on Parsons’ example of Whitelock, who briefly played for the Panasonic Wild Knights last year before COVID-19 cancelled the season, returning from Japan in good condition.
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Hall said the veteran All Blacks lock, who has been backed to fill in for the injured Sam Cane as All Blacks captain this year, is one of many Kiwi stars who have flourished in New Zealand following spells in the Top League.
Among those to have benefitted from some time away from New Zealand rugby in Japan was former All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino, who left to join Toyota Verblitz for two seasons immediately after the 2011 World Cup.
Despite the perceived lack of physicality – an aspect of the game Kaino is renowned for – in the Top League, the experienced loose forward returned to the Blues and All Blacks an arguably better player as he retained his place as New Zealand’s premier blindside flanker leading into, during and after the 2015 World Cup.
That’s why Hall said he has no qualms about Barrett returning to New Zealand any worse off than when he left following last year’s Tri Nations.
“You look at the guys we were talking about, Sam Whitelock came back, Matt Todd was over there. I look at Jerome Kaino as a good example as well,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“He went over to Japan for a year and then I remember him coming back and having a bit of time off and then really hitting the ground running.
“If you remember that year that he came back and was just single-handedly having great performance after great performance, just looking refreshed and just looked a lot more different, a lot more freer.
“It’s going to be great to have him [Barrett] back in New Zealand rugby. He’s such a great player and, for the fact that he is coming back, it’s great for us moving forward because he’s such a great player, a two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.
“Whenever you get those kinds of calibre of players playing back in New Zealand, it’s something he can add to the Blues, as Jippa [Parsons] alluded to, and the All Blacks moving forward.”
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Parsons added that the growing stature and quality of the Top League, which is growing due to the rising number of star imports each year, could make it more difficult for Barrett to return as refreshed and replenished as the likes of Whitelock and Kaino.
However, Parsons noted the fact that Barrett plays at first-five, a position where he isn’t exposed to the brutal physicality that Whitelock and Kaino have to endure, alleviates the playing requirements demanded of him as Suntory’s marquee player.
“It might be a little bit different for a forward vs a back, especially a No 10, just in the sense that they’re going to want to get every minute out of their investment,” Parsons said.
“There’s obviously some rules around how many international players are allowed on the field week-to-week and things like that, but I think 10 games out of 10 we will see Beaudy playing, just because of his position and the influence he can have on the game.
“That’s why they wanted him and invested in him, but with that also comes a little bit less contact and collision work than a forward as well, so there’s a balancing act between both roles.”
Additionally, the mental aspect of Barrett’s stay in Japan, where he doesn’t have to travel away from home as often as he does while playing in Super Rugby and internationally, will also serve him well, according to Parsons.
“I just think it’s a freshen up as well. There’s still the collision and the impact of training, but it’s more a mental refresher in a new environment in a new city for him.
“He’s getting to spend a lot of family time, he’s got a new baby, so there’s all those sorts of things that can freshen him up mentally as well that I think adds to him coming back here with a rejuvenated energy to get back into a Blues jersey and a black jersey.”
Barrett is one of three All Blacks, alongside Brodie Retallick of Kobelco Steelers and TJ Perenara of NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, who are set to return to New Zealand from their respective sabbaticals ahead of the test season later this year.
Suntory Sungoliath, meanwhile, continue their Top League campaign with a clash again NTT Communications Shining Arcs in Tokyo on Sunday.
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