Each and every All Black has the challenge of ‘enhancing’ the jersey they wear. It is a core driver of what keeps the All Blacks successful, pushing for more despite that being a seemingly impossible task.
This current generation arguably has the toughest challenge yet in delivering on that quest.
The last of the Carters, Nonus, and McCaws delivered the most successful period in the modern era for New Zealand Rugby, winning back-to-back Rugby World Cups, overcoming twenty years of failure in the process and setting the bar at a new high.
In Barrett’s case, how do you enhance the jersey after possibly the greatest 10 of all, Dan Carter?
If that is even possible, the first questions asked will be, did you win the World Cup? Did you beat the British & Irish Lions? And how did you fare against the best opposition of your era?
Not to diminish his record-breaking performances over the Wallabies this year, but Barrett’s time in the All Black 10 jersey has coincided with an undeniable shift of collective power in World Rugby to the Northern Hemisphere, where he has been irregularly pitted against the best of his contemporaries, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton.
The Wallabies slumped to as low as seventh in the world rankings in 2018, while the Springboks also dropped to fifth. Second through fourth are currently all occupied by Northern Hemisphere teams. The All Blacks are now the last bastion of Southern power and the last resistance to the changing of the guard.
During Barrett’s 2016 rise, the June test series against fifth-ranked Wales was the catalyst for his elevation as the anointed successor. He didn’t start the series as the preferred first five-eighth but finished it as the number one option. His attacking explosion in the final two tests tipped him over Aaron Cruden in the eyes of the selectors.
A man-of-the-match performance in the ‘retribution’ test in Dublin squared the ledger with Jonathan Sexton 1-1 after the historic loss to Ireland in Chicago. Those matches have grown in stature and significance in hindsight due to Ireland’s subsequent rise, but at the time it wasn’t considered a rivalry against the best in Europe. A clash against the world’s second-ranked team, the Grand Slam champions England, was unfortunately not scheduled.
The Lions tour in 2017 presented the biggest litmus test of Barrett’s starting career. The Lions series was the unofficial ‘handing of the torch’ from Wilkinson to Dan Carter in 2005, and the reigning World Rugby Player of Year had the chance to emulate Carter’s performances and prove himself against Europe’s best.
The All Blacks beat the Lions in the first test but the introduction of Sexton in an axis partnership with Farrell proved vital in the second and third.
Barrett’s off-night with the boot in wet conditions in Wellington compared with Farrell’s clutch-kicking laid the platform for a squared series, with a drawn test in the third test leaving Barrett without a series win over the Lions and the first major failure of his reign.
Sexton’s ledger over Barrett as a starter moved to an advantageous 2-1-1 and while Farrell couldn’t win the first test as a 10, he was just as important at 12 and left with his first win over Barrett.
The 2017 end-of-year tour again failed to pit the All Blacks against second-ranked England or the rising fourth-ranked Irish. Just one year out from the Rugby World Cup, finally both matchups the All Blacks need are scheduled, and the matchups Barrett needs in order to play the very best in his position.
A Twickenham test against the Old Enemy was, as Hansen attested, one of the most important matches the All Blacks can play. The isolated, ‘one-off’ nature of the test and the first between England and New Zealand in this World Cup cycle added to its significance.
Treacherous conditions awaited, as sleet rain drove down into the Stadium providing the leveler that England wanted and the conditions to suit the game they wanted to play – a territorial kicking match. The All Blacks would have to beat the English at their own game, and Barrett would have to control proceedings and win the kicking duel, both off the tee and out of hand.
After an opening English barrage where a ‘kick-pressure’ master class from England built a 15-point lead, the All Blacks faced significant scoreboard pressure for only the second time in the last few years, at one of the worst possible times.
The All Blacks own kicking during that first period was inconsistent and too frequent, possession was gifted away deep inside England territory. Barrett himself kicked two into the in-goal for 22 restarts and missed touch once.
A tactical change to shelve the kicks late in the first half allowed the All Blacks to build some momentum before a bold decision to take a scrum from a penalty was rewarded when Barrett put McKenzie over from short range.
Farrell himself kicked out on the full from the restart, allowing the All Blacks to earn another three points, which Barrett kicked over before heading to the sheds behind 15-10.
A similar approach in the second half of building pressure by keeping ball-in-hand had the All Blacks on top. After receiving a penalty advantage deep in England territory, Barrett dropped back into the pocket and calmly snapped a drop goal, from almost the exact same position as Farrell did in the first half.
An illegal cleanout by Barrett on Chris Ashton gave England an opportunity to attack from the five but the All Blacks pack stoutly defended and forced an error, from which Barrett exited.
That stop would prove pivotal, as the All Blacks seemingly figured out England calls at lineout from that point on. A driving territorial kick from Barrett around halfway found space and touch inside the 22, where a steal from the lineout gave the All Blacks possession that would lead to three points and the 16-15 lead with twenty to go.
In the final stanza, Farrell traded Barrett’s long driving kicks with touch finders, in a territorial arm-wrestle waiting for that pivotal mistake. That error looked to be TJ Perenara’s charged box kick only for Underhill’s try to be called back for a marginal offside by Courtney Lawes.
In the end, Barrett had zero handling errors in the conditions and zero kick errors in the second half. The cleanout penalty in the second half and an offside penalty in the first half his only significant blemishes. He kicked 100% from the tee, slotted his drop goal attempt, and laid on one try, directly contributing to all 16 points in a measured performance that wasn’t pretty but absolutely necessary.
Perhaps most telling about his control in the match was the 19 runs he had compared to just 18 passes. Faced with constant outside pressure, he took the safe option and tucked, taking the contact and small incremental gains rather than pushing a speculative pass.
His ledger starting against Owen Farrell is now in his favour by 2-1-1, and he is now 2-0 when both play 10. Given the context of this match and on-field performance by Barrett, this win at Twickenham against England is his greatest as an All Black 10.
That can be potentially surpassed next week in his first test against a ranked ‘number two’ team in Dublin, with a chance to pull one back on Ireland’s Sexton, while next year’s showpiece event also will offer the stage for greatness.
‘Did you beat England at Twickenham’ could also well be on that list of questions he needs to answer, which at the very least Barrett has now passed.
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