What makes one number 10 better than another? Is it extra speed, acceleration or breaking ability? Is it great rugby instincts? Or is it something more subtle: the facility to coax attackers into space on the pass; to manage the game, and persuade the defenders to move where you want them to move, to vacate the areas you really want to attack?
They are pertinent questions which receive contrasting answers, depending on where on planet rugby you ask them. World number one Ireland has stuck with a venerable game manager, and Johnny Sexton – widely considered indispensable to Ireland’s chances of winning the William Webb Ellis trophy for the first time – will be 38 years old when the tournament begins. Sexton may run much nowadays, but he knows how to orchestrate an attack and expose hidden defensive weak spots better than anyone.
In New Zealand, the view has been very different. When all-world first five-eighth Dan Carter announced his retirement after the 2015 World Cup, there was a big coaching move to revolutionise the No 10 position and squeeze even more value out of it by grooming young Beauden Barrett for the spot.
Barrett was, and still remains one of the finest rugby athletes the professional game has ever produced. In terms of skills and instincts, he is right at the top of the tree with the word ‘elite’ grooved into it by lovers of the game everywhere. But, arguably, he has never been a dominant No 10, and certainly never as good as Dan Carter.
Since 2016, the first five-eighth battle at national level in New Zealand has largely been a fought between Barrett and Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders. Barrett started the most games between 2016-2018 (33 matches to Mo’unga’s two) but the Crusaders man took over the reins in ahead of the last World Cup in 2019 and has started twice as many games since then (29 starts to Barrett’s 14).
Overall, Barrett has enjoyed 47 starts at No 10 since the 2015 World Cup, Mo’unga 31. Others like Damian McKenzie and Aaron Cruden have had a smattering of opportunities, but they have been entrusted with the pivotal role on only nine occasions over seven years. It has not been so much a case of ‘passing through the jersey’ as joint ownership.
Last Saturday, there was only one winner, and that was the man wearing red and black. To understand exactly why, let’s take a time-travel capsule back to one of the best rugby educational videos, filmed by the legendary Kiwi coaching pioneer Wayne Smith at Harrow School in London. If you look carefully, you can even spot a youthful Maro Itoje in his schoolboy audience.
‘The Professor’ begins by outlining a short history lesson, the story of how an All Blacks side coached by the ‘three wise men’ (Smith, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen) had to be taught how to pass the ball all over again, nearly two decades ago:
“You’re all generating [lateral momentum] with the pass. Defenders know you’re going to pass.
“When we took over the All Blacks in 2004, we wondered why we weren’t being successful with the [wide] game we were trying to play.
“We couldn’t pass. We were giving cues away on that long pass.
“So, we started a campaign to be able to develop our passing, to be able to punch-pass off a nice straight line, without having to wind up [and step across].”
If that lesson ever needed reinforcing, there would be no better illustrative example than last week’s Super Rugby Pacific semi-final between the Crusaders and the Blues.
The rest of a crystal-clear session focuses on how to achieve width without giving the defence passing cues, or ‘ticks’ as Smith calls them, which tip off where the ball is going. No wind-up on the delivery, and staying square to the goal-line; passing off the ‘wrong foot’, with no turning sideways in the direction of the receiver. From the little acorns of precise passing technique, mighty oaks of successful attack do grow.
If that lesson ever needed reinforcing, there would be no better illustrative example than last week’s Super Rugby Pacific semi-final between the Crusaders and the Blues. The red-and-black crushed the blue, in the process underlining the claims of Richie Mo’unga to the New Zealand No 10 jersey in indelible ink.
Mo’unga was facing his old adversary in the match in Christchurch, and the comparison on the day was brutal. On the evidence of events at Orangetheory Stadium, it is a case of Richie rising, and red-and-black, not blue in the ascendant. At least, according to the rules set down by the Professor in his magnificent video session.
With his forwards under constant pressure in and around the breakdown, Beauden Barrett fell back into some old bad habits which meant that his backline could not function, and width could not be obtained:
The problem occurs in its purest form on movements going from left to right. Barrett turns his shoulders early towards the target receiver (Mark Telea), and both his feet are directly facing him directly the winger the pass is made. The delivery itself needs a noticeable wind-up and there is never any question of where the ball is going. He is ‘giving cues away on that long pass’, to use the Professor’s words.
The screenshot illustrates Barrett’s tendency to deliver the ball off his ‘passing’ foot. If he passes off the right or ‘wrong’ foot, he will be straighter and punching the ball across his body, but Barrett’s action is leading the defence directly towards the receiver. Width is impossible to achieve in these circumstances because the defence is moving more quickly into the target area than the attack:
The previous ruck is located between the Crusaders’ 40-metre line and halfway, but after the shoulder turn, the wind-up and two passes, Dalton Papali’i is struggling to make it back to the advantage line, and he is giving up a pilfering opportunity to Tom Christie in the process.
The Crusaders were mostly able to write off Beauden Barrett as a runner from first receiver, and were always ready to move on to the men outside him:
How different it was when Richie Mo’unga received the ball. Early in the first half, he twice tormented the Telea by forcing the Blues’ man to guess on D:
The key in both instances is Mo’unga’s ability to pass off the wrong foot and leave his turn of the shoulders to the very last moment, when Telea is already committed to a definite path of action. No ‘tick’, no ‘tell’.
In the first clip, Telea is pulled in towards Mo’unga with the No 10 still playing square to the defence, and that opens the space for Braydon Ennor outside him. In the second example, he over-compensates, reading the wide pass early and allowing the red-and-black magician to pick out the trail runner, Will Jordan instead.
When you take the ball in stride, you are much more of a threat on the run, and the defence has to stop and wait for you to make your choice of play:
For a first receiver, taking that first step square to the defence just creates so many more options for the attack. Suddenly the attacking side is the true aggressor and forcing the D to respond to its actions – not the other way around:
The Crusaders scrum is in retreat, but Mo’unga’s first step is straight ahead, and that more than compensates by forcing the Blues’ defence to account for the No 10 as a runner before it can slide on to the attackers further out.
The red-and-black’s last try of the game provided a suitably poetic conclusion to a No 10 master-class:
Richie Mo’unga’s first step immediately straightens the line of attack and that means he is able to convert the same kind of opportunity that Beauden Barrett could not exploit earlier in the match.
Back in 2004, the All Blacks coaches needed a total rethink, and overhaul of what had gone before. While the situation 19 years later does not have quite the same urgency as it did back then, many of the issues associated with the successful transfer of the ball wide on attack remain.
The wise words of the Professor at Harrow School are as relevant now as they were back in the day: Stay square to the defender, pass off the wrong foot, punch the ball away with as little wind-up as possible, and preserve the space for your outsides and keep the defence guessing.
The Super Rugby Pacific semi-final between the Crusaders and the Blues proved that the man best-equipped to do that in New Zealand rugby generally, for the All Blacks at the World Cup specifically, is Richie Mo’unga. Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie, in particular, may yet have something to add to the debate at first five-eighth over the next three months. But at least for now, that is rugby reality in the Land of the Long White Cloud.