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RUGBYPASS+ Recognising Scott Barrett's rise into locking royalty

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Recognising Scott Barrett's rise into locking royalty By Gregor Paul

There was a great sledge back in the day when legendary Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh was making his way back to the pavilion balcony after being bowled out in an Ashes test.

As he began to climb the steps, feeling a little smug at the number of runs he’d made, one fan shouted: “Best player in the world? You aren’t even the best player in your family.”

This was in reference to the even better form of Steve’s twin brother Mark, who was also in the team and smashing the English attack around the ground.

It’s a story to which Scott Barrett can surely relate. The 27-year-old has been an All Black since 2016, in the form of his life and yet it is older brother Beauden and younger brother Jordie, who tend to dominate the headlines and win the significantly greater media profile.

Scott is not the forgotten brother as such but he’s certainly the one that most people think of last and he’s definitely the one that the nation least appreciates.

Jordie (left) and Beauden (right) receive most of the attention, but it’s Scott Barrett (middle) who’s perhaps performing the best for the All Blacks. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Which is something that needs to be addressed, because this Rugby Championship is starting to feel like the Scott Barrett show with plenty more significant acts to come.

Barrett has arguably been the All Blacks’ best player in the last two tests against Argentina and Australia. His work rate was off the scale and he threw himself about in Perth, thumping Wallaby ball carriers and then bouncing back to his feet to snaffle turnover ball as if he was an openside flanker rather than a 118kg lock.

Against the Pumas the following week, he demonstrated his agility, mobility, timing and soft hands with his multiple ball carries. It was a game in which he confirmed he’s probably the world’s best ball-playing lock in the way he can pick clever angles to hit the ball and then slip passes just before he takes the contact.

He’s abrasive. He’s big, he’s quick and he’s agile and on top of that, he has a determined mindset to impose himself and dominate tests. 

He’s also battling for game time and recognition against the two men, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, who are individually the two best second rows New Zealand has known, while their partnership, which extends back to 2012, is without any doubt, the best in All Blacks history.

Barrett, in short, is a world-class player – but it has taken a while for him to prove it and even now, many probably don’t fully appreciate his talents and not just because he struggles for attention behind his two brothers.

He’s also battling for game time and recognition against the two men, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, who are individually the two best second rows New Zealand has known, while their partnership, which extends back to 2012, is without any doubt, the best in All Blacks history.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Barrett has been unable to budge the public from their fixed idea that he is most definitely number three in the pecking order.

First capped as a 22-year-old in 2016, it was never going to be easy for Barrett to win game time and establish himself. And to make matters harder, he’s suffered some bad luck and a bit of self-inflicted damage.

In 2017, Retallick missed the back half of the season, but Barrett wasn’t able to impose himself in the big man’s absence. Still only 23 at that stage, Barrett lacked the ability to make a crunching physical impact and the lion’s share of the game time went to the more experienced Luke Romano.

Scott Barrett carried a heavy workload during the 2017 test season. (Photo by Christiaan Kotze/Photosport)

Various injuries, some serious, have plagued Barrett since 2018 as well and then there have been three other, specific incidents that have counted against him.

In 2019 he was sent off in Perth against the Wallabies for a shoulder to the head of Michael Hooper. It did seem as if there were strong mitigating factors to reduce the punishment – the body height of both players – but Barrett made life hard for himself by tucking his arm and leading with his shoulder.

“Nothing against Scooter [Barrett], but he’s got a little bit of a habit of using that shoulder,” All Blacks hooker Dane Coles said of the incident. “We know if you’re going to hit their head, you’re going to get done. We need to develop a technique to make sure we don’t hit them in the head and then we’ll be sweet. 

“We know the law, so we’ve got to embrace it and find ways to make sure we don’t smack someone in the head.”

Scott came out and played as well as he could. Did we want to win some more lineout ball? Yes, we did. But we didn’t. It takes more than one person to do that.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen following the side’s loss to England at the Rugby World Cup in 2019

A yellow card picked up in 2020 when he rashly slapped the ball out of Wallaby halfback Nic White’s hands late in the game deepened the impression he’s prone to red-mist moments that can be costly.

And the third factor which has counted against him in the public mind was the World Cup semi-final against England. Barrett was the surprise selection at blindside for that game, picked out of position to give the All Blacks a massive height advantage at the lineout – an area where they had dominated England the year before at Twickenham.

But while the strategy may have made sense, the execution on the night was terrible and despite having four jumpers to England’s two, the All Blacks’ lineout malfunctioned and Barrett was taken off at half-time.

“If I turn round and say it backfired, then Scott is going to feel pretty average,” said Hansen when he was asked about it after the 19-7 loss. “So I’m not going to turn round and say it backfired. I’ll take that one on the chin.

“Scott came out and played as well as he could. Did we want to win some more lineout ball? Yes, we did. But we didn’t. It takes more than one person to do that.”

Scott Barrett was used on the blindside flank during the loss to England at the 2019 World Cup. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

After all these various setbacks, Barrett has some clean air in front of him and the chance to enjoy an extended run in the starting team. 

Whitelock will not be joining the team for the Rugby Championship due to quarantine issues after staying in New Zealand for the birth of his third child. 

Barrett, at this stage, is hoping to return to New Zealand after the Rugby Championship to be at the birth of his first child, hence, All Blacks coach Ian Foster plans to juggle his resources at lock. 

He’ll lean on Barrett heavily now, run him hard and play him often and then tag him out for Whitelock. That means Barrett will start both tests against the Springboks, having also started against the Wallabies in Perth and Argentina on the Gold Coast. He’s also been picked on the bench against Argentina in Brisbane and therefore he, Rieko Ioane and potentially older brother Beauden are likely going to be the only players in the squad who will be involved in all five Rugby Championship tests in Australia.

Few forwards know as well as him how to draw a defender and then release the ball in the split second before the collision and Barrett brings an all-court game that enables him to be as effective in ruck and run tests, such as the one in Perth, as it does the kick and crunch encounters that lie ahead with the Boks.

This is the chance Barrett has craved and he seems better placed to take it than at any other time in his career. He’s filled out to 118kg and yet lost none of his mobility, agility or speed.

Some of the angles he ran against the Pumas coming on to the short ball were sensationally good, as was his ability to use the ball. 

Few forwards know as well as him how to draw a defender and then release the ball in the split second before the collision and Barrett brings an all-court game that enables him to be as effective in ruck and run tests, such as the one in Perth, as it does the kick and crunch encounters that lie ahead with the Boks.

In answering media questions after naming the team to play the Pumas on the Gold Coast, Foster made special note of signalling out Barrett. The questions kept coming about Retallick, who was named to captain the team for the first time, but Foster wanted to make sure everyone realised that Barrett had been equally, if not more influential in the 38-21 third test demolition of the Wallabies.

Whatever praise has come Barrett’s way in the last two tests has to be kept in context. The Boks, with their juggernaut pack, slower gameplan and collection of world-class locks, present an altogether different challenge.

Scott Barrett has been exceptional for the All Blacks in 2021. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

If Barrett is going to finally convince everyone that he’s now a second-rower of the highest calibre and should no longer, automatically be considered third in the locking pecking order, these are the two tests in which he must deliver his best.

If he can front against the Boks, knock them off the ball the way he did the Wallabies and crunch into them as hard as he did the Pumas then life will become interesting on the locking front when Whitelock, Retallick and Barrett are all fit and available. 

The old days of pencilling in Retallick and Whitelock by default may be over as Barrett has made a compelling case that his energy, speed around the park and ability to carry effectively are genuine assets. 

Whitelock comes with the greater experience, the proven leadership and aerial portfolio but there may be games in the future where Foster prefers to start with Barrett to utilise his ball carrying and ball playing.

Not that Barrett is looking any further ahead than the next few weeks. “My focus is the next few years and currently, right here in the Gold Coast and Brisbane,” he says.

“I don’t want to look too far down the line. My focus is on trying to get this team to work where it’s striving to go and just playing great rugby.”

More stories from Gregor Paul

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