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FEATURE Barrett's belated midfield shift will one day become All Blacks folklore

Barrett's belated midfield shift will one day become All Blacks folklore
8 months ago

It has taken Jordie Barrett six years of being a positional nomad to finally arrive in the place he wants to be and absolutely needs to be for the All Blacks.

And the wait has been worth it, because Barrett, has become arguably the All Blacks most critical player at this World Cup.

A case can be made for a handful of other players – that the All Blacks wouldn’t be the same without them. Shannon Frizell has shown that when he’s at blindside, the All Blacks are better able to play their preferred continuity game on the back of his ball carrying and dominant tackling. Ardie Savea brings a unique skill-set to his work at No 8 and there isn’t a specialist alternative in the squad, while Aaron Smith’s speed, passing accuracy and experience are qualities everyone will better appreciate when they are no longer there.

But what has become clear in the last month or so, is that the All Blacks are not the same team without the youngest of the three Barretts in the squad.

Barrett brings qualities that no other midfield can replicate, but more importantly, the All Blacks can’t play the way they want to without the 26-year-old.

Jordie Barrett carries the ball against Scotland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Their whole game-plan is built on generating momentum through multiple, dynamic ball carriers that enable the All Blacks to recycle quickly and keep shifting the defence.

To do that, there needs to be an endless supply of big men on their feet willing to run hard and direct up the middle to suck the defence in and eventually leave space out wide.

And once the space is created, there needs to be a capacity to use it: to have good decision-makers, visionaries and creative types who can work out whether to pass, kick or run.

It’s a gameplan that requires the All Blacks No 12 to be able to be both relentlessly physical and capable of smashing hard yards against big men, bit to also have the skill-set of a first-five, with the distribution, kicking repertoire and awareness to capitalise on whatever opportunities are presented.

It’s an almost impossible role to fulfil; there just aren’t many players in the world game who have the size and resilience to be battering rams but also the wider range of softer skills to be a silky play-maker.

As Richie Mo’unga explained after the 96-17 demolition of Italy: “It’s nothing special, nothing secret. Winning dominance in our carries and cleans allows us to play eyes-up footy which we’re really good at.”

Barrett wasn’t available to play France in the opening game of the tournament and its hard to exaggerate how much the All Blacks missed him.

And this is why Barrett is irreplaceable – he’s truly the only man in New Zealand capable of giving the All Blacks everything they need at No 12 and its almost as if the gameplan has been devised specifically with him in mind.

Barrett wasn’t available to play France in the opening game of the tournament and its hard to exaggerate how much the All Blacks missed him.

His replacement, Anton Lienert-Brown, a fine player, is just not the same type of athlete or equipped to deliver the same vast range of skills as Barrett.

The All Blacks didn’t have the same physical presence in the middle of the field against France with Lienert-Brown and this is why All Blacks head coach Ian Foster was notably relieved when he was able to name Barrett to start against Italy and then again against Uruguay six days later.

Barrett is a player Foster needs on the field if the All Blacks are going to win this World Cup – as their gameplan simply doesn’t work without him.

And the statistics back-up what most people have been able to work out for themselves, which is that New Zealand are an infinitely better team with Barrett at No 12.

For much of Ian Foster’s time in charge of the All Blacks, David Havili has been Ian Foster’s first-choice No 12. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

If we go back to the start of 2022 when the All Blacks were picking David Havili and Quinn Tupaea at second five, the All Blacks played eight tests and won four.

Since Barrett shifted to No 12 in the last game of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks have played 13 tests and won 10, drawn one and lost twice.

One of those defeats came when Barrett was injured, but the deeper story is told by the nature of the performances since the positional shift.

The All Blacks’ best work has all come with Barrett at 12 and there is a direct link between him playing well and the team playing well. His three best performances as a second five came in the first three games of this year’s Rugby Championship – Tests in which the All Blacks hammered Argentina, Australia and South Africa.

He was also superb against Italy – smashing holes, playing others into gaps and setting up the first try of the game with his perfectly weighted cross-kick for Will Jordan.

Barrett has revolutionised the All Blacks attack from No 12 and looked so natural there, that it makes it incredible to think back that even 13 months ago, there was total resistance within the coaching group to shift him to the midfield.

We’ve watched with interest him playing 12. It hasn’t excited me that he’s gone into there.

Ian Foster following Jordie Barrett’s shift to midfield for the Hurricanes

Barrett, who has said for most of his professional career that his preference is the No 12 jersey, could not persuade anyone to play him there.

Why it has taken so long for Barrett to be installed in the All Blacks No 12 jersey will be one of those stories that inevitably becomes part of New Zealand rugby folklore.

The Hurricanes used him at fullback when he first started in 2017. He made his debut there for the All Blacks in the same year and bounced around between fullback and wing for the national team.

At the last World Cup, he played a test at No 10 against Namibia. When he came home from that tournament he ramped up his own publicity to say he was eager to switch to second five but it took until 2022 for his Super Rugby club to give him a regular slot there.

He played well as a No 12 for the Hurricanes, but even as the competition neared its end, All Blacks coach Ian Foster was seemingly not convinced about using Barrett there.

“We’ve watched with interest him playing 12. It hasn’t excited me that he’s gone into there,” Foster.

Jordie Barrett was shifted into the Hurricanes midfield during the 2022 Super Rugby season. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“He’s played 12 before and he quite enjoys it. If it stimulates him that’s great, and I’m interested to see whether it’s an option for us long-term, because it might become one.

“The clue I’d give is I thought he was one of our best All Blacks last year (at fullback) with his goalkicking, his high-ball stuff and kicking, and if you start thinking about World Cups, France, big stadiums, low-risk teams you have to have a back three that defuses high ball, has a great kicking game and is strong defensively.

“He ticks those boxes. I still love him as a 15. But are we willing to consider some options at 12? Yes, we are.”

What makes the story yet more colourful and enduring is that it was effectively by accident that Barrett was shifted from fullback to inside centre.

While Foster had said he was willing to consider Barrett as a No 12 option, it only actually happened after first Quinn Tupaea and then David Havili were both injured in the first half of the Melbourne Bledisloe Cup test last year, forcing Barrett to play close to 60 minutes of that game in the midfield.

It was a special 60 minutes, though and the following week, Foster relented and started Barrett at No 12 for the first time. Australia were blown away and Barrett has never been considered anything but a second five ever since.

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