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FEATURE Richie Mo'unga has come of age as an All Blacks No 10

Richie Mo'unga has come of age as an All Blacks No 10
7 months ago

As most All Blacks observers are now aware, there are a handful of key selections and initiatives that have helped the team turn their fortunes around since they were in all sorts of turmoil in August last year.

One of the big differences between the All Blacks now and in the middle of last year when they were sitting on a 15 per cent win ratio across six Tests, is that they have found four mobile props who can scrummage.

Form being oddly wedded to the likes of Angus Ta’avao and Karl Tu’inukuafe, the All Blacks have been brave enough to turn to the young brigade of Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell as their four match day props.

Having four ball players and tacklers has greatly altered the All Blacks’ ability to play a high tempo, multi-recycling game, and the arrival of Lomax as a genuine scrummaging force has given them the anchor they need to set a destructive scrum.

The discovery, or perhaps that should be the maturing of Shannon Frizell has given them the player they need in the No 6 jersey.

Shannon Frizell of the All Blacks looks to pass (C) during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa Springboks at Mt Smart Stadium on July 15, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Between 2020 and 2022 the All Blacks looked like they were never going to find the bruising presence they demanded on the blindside flank.

In the end, the guy that came through for them was Frizell, who was in and out of the squad in that period and never quite looked like he was going to deliver the consistency that the role required.

Until, that is, earlier this year when he suddenly looked the part with the Highlanders and then took his game to the next level with the All Blacks.

He’s given the All Blacks a second go-to ball carrier alongside Scott Barrett, a powerful tackler, a strong lineout option and he’s also balanced the back-row to enable Sam Cane and Ardie Savea to function at their best.

And then of course there was the decision to shift Jordie Barrett to second five late last year.

But perhaps the most important decision the All Blacks have made in the last 15 months has been to commit to Richie Mo’unga as their first five-eighth.

That was a game-changer as it gave the backline the dual qualities of confrontation and play-making, and so effective has Barrett been in his preferred role that it is almost impossible to remember why the All Blacks were so reluctant to ever put him there.

But perhaps the most important decision the All Blacks have made in the last 15 months has been to commit to Richie Mo’unga as their first five-eighth.

It’s a decision that has probably not had the attention or focus it deserves, which is somewhat strange given the hype there was back in 2020 and 2021 about whether the All Blacks would pick Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett at No 10.

Back then it felt like it was the only debate anyone ever wanted to have, and it was one that was continually fuelled by the All Blacks’ inability to make up their minds about who they preferred.

It was clear that head coach Ian Foster wanted to see them both at the helm and they were swapped about as starters until the Rugby Championship in 2021 when it became apparent that Barrett had become the preferred option.

It almost seemed as if Foster was determined to reach that outcome because Mo’unga could never quite catch a break.

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

The Crusaders No 10 played the best Test of his career in a record defeat of the Wallabies in Sydney 2020 and the following week he was on the bench in Brisbane.

Then in 2021, he played superbly in the two Bledisloe Cup Tests in New Zealand but was unavailable for much of the Rugby Championship because he stayed in New Zealand for the birth of his child and then had to observe Queensland’s strict, two-week isolation rules when he flew over to join the squad.

By the time he was available again, Barrett had sewn up the jersey.

And any doubt about that was removed in the final game of the season in Paris when Barrett was unavailable due to a head knock and Mo’unga came into the starting team.

It was his big opportunity for him to lay down a marker, but he disappeared that night at Stade de France.

He had disappeared in Paris, but not in Johannesburg. He wanted to own the big moments and he took responsibility for the game plan.

The All Blacks needed a tactical general and a source of inspiration, but Mo’unga sat too deep and didn’t appear to want to force himself into the game.

It wasn’t that he played badly, more that he didn’t really play at all and when the 2022 Test season kicked off, Foster went straight back to Barrett at No 10.

That lasted until the All Blacks played their fifth match of the year and Foster, knowing that only a win at Ellis Park could save his job – and even then it might not – returned Mo’unga to the No 10 jersey in the hope it would spark something. And it did.

The All Blacks famously won against the odds and the key period was the last 10 minutes when, after making a rash decision to try to run out of the defensive zone – which led to him losing the ball – Mo’unga took an iron-clad grip of proceedings.

He had disappeared in Paris, but not in Johannesburg. He wanted to own the big moments and he took responsibility for the game plan.

He didn’t play perfectly, but he did play bravely, and his game management was strong.

The All Blacks played with more depth and width in Johannesburg with Richie Mo’unga at No 10. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

As former All Blacks captain Kieran Read would tell SENZ radio: “Richie Mo’unga was the guy for me, who steered the ship around and got us in the right areas of the field.”

Here we are now, 14 months on from that match at Ellis Park and Mo’unga has come of age as a Test player, and it is largely because he’s been consistently picked.

That’s all it really took for him to build his confidence and become the same sort of game manager and leader for the All Blacks as he is with the Crusaders.

For too long he was bumped in and out of the starting team and it undoubtedly eroded his confidence. There was always this sense that he saw himself as the junior partner to Barrett and maybe that’s why Mo’unga found it hard to be a dominant and controlling force prior to the second half of 2022.

But in the wake of the All Blacks’ masterful quarter-final victory against Ireland, it has become apparent that Mo’unga is a vastly different test player to the one he was 14 months ago.

For Mo’unga, there must be a deeper poignancy that his coming-of-age performance for the All Blacks came at the Stade de France

His performance against Ireland was the best of his career. He kicked well, he passed well, he tackled well, and his game management was outstanding. All this in a huge game.

There was no sense of Mo’unga deferring to anyone and most importantly, he owned the big moments, none more significant than the try he set up for Will Jordan after 52 minutes.

The All Blacks won a four-man lineout, Aaron Smith fired a long pass to Mo’unga who, by holding the ball in two hands with Jordan and Ardie Savea on either side of him, managed to create a gap between hooker Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier.

“We practised that move the whole week, and it was Will going through,” said Mo’unga.

“They had two defenders who held off, and I went through. Luckily he was there because I didn’t have the pace to go all the way. When you have someone like [Jordan] around, he attracts defenders because of the threat he is.”

For Mo’unga, there must be a deeper poignancy that his coming-of-age performance for the All Blacks came at the Stade de France and that he has the chance to make two more statement performances in Paris.

Ian Foster, Head Coach of New Zealand, and Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand celebrate victory at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

This was the ground, after all, at which he made no impression at all in 2021. And now, he’s back in Paris as probably the best No 10 in the world (in consideration of Johnny Sexton’s retirement and Romain Ntamack’s injury), and the undisputed play-making king of the All Blacks.

Now that he has the confidence to take control of the delivery of the game plan, the All Blacks are a significantly better team.

Being strong enough to stick with Mo’unga has been transformational for the All Blacks. He’s become the bold and decisive game-manager the All Blacks need and all it took was time and the security of being consistently picked.

By clarifying the pecking order, it has also become easier for Mo’unga to alter his relationship with Barrett.

If he used to defer to the more senior man, he no longer does and Barrett says the two now get each other better both as players and people.

“The link or relationship has grown significantly on and off the field,” says Barrett.

“We understand each other more and we understand how we can contribute to the team in different areas of the game, particularly in phase play when it gets broken up and out of structure, we are both there and we can bounce off each other.

“If Richie is in the ruck I can stand up and direct play, and vice-versa. It has been a pleasure to play with Rich, the 10-15 combination is very important for this team.”

Comments

9 Comments
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paul 233 days ago

If nothing else comes of this weekend, this has been the best part of this AB run. Mounga was always a great 1st 5 for the Crusaders. He has a bit of the Carter vision. Just cool and smart decision making. Just not so poished with his tactical kicking. But yes struggled to get confidence with Barret lurking around and wanting the role. Just never seemed to be able to deal with that. Social media was always hard on him and I suspect he and Barrett didn’t get along. Mounga just seemed to go into his shell. But he has proven his worth and can walk away proud.
Even if he comes back in a few years, someone will have grown into the role in his place, so don’t expect we will see him in the black jersey again. I really hope the Crusaders and the ABs can find their next star 10. There was a time when NZ seemed to churn out decent 10s. At one point there was Carter, Cruden, Evans and Slade. Four 10s that would walk into most national teams. And of course that was excluding the superhero Donald! For the crusaders there was merhtens then carter then mounga. Can they find another?
For Barrett too its great to see him now wanting to own the 15. Its his skillset. He finds gaps, defends, takes high balls. Glad he has also found peace.

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B.J. Spratt 239 days ago

Well done UOB . . .Mounga is Happy. Number 10’s win World Cups. Anyone who knows anything about Rugby knows that fact.

Thinkers beat Jinkers.

MOUNGA V Libbok or Farrell.

I like Farrell, arrogant and ignorant and one tough so of a bitch. Doesn’t take prisoners. Hugely talented. Probably the “Toughest Number 10 in the World. . .

Libbok is underated. Seems a bit “dominated” by players around him.

Mounga “Cool calm and collected, runs a game, talented, reminds me of Johnny Wilkinson except not as deadly as a kicker”

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Utiku Old Boy 240 days ago

There is a lot of truth in what is written here. Mostly the confusion that was evident when Foster went back and forth between BB and RM and then trying to force the twin fly half concept when BB often got in the way or there were two competing play directors. RMs confidence may well be down to consistent selection, improved forward performance and Jordie outside of him. It could also be he has grasped the reins and is running with it. Regardless, we are starting to see the confidence and impact he has regularly had with the Crusaders and it is hard to not feel a little cheated that this emergence at AB has been so long delayed. As others state, Foster’s dithering has had an impact on the team and individuals’ development but since Ryan and Schmidt came onboard, there seems much more clarity. Hopefully RM’s venture into Japan is not prolonged and we get to see him back in black again some day.

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Pecos 240 days ago

Thank God for Ryan & Schmidt.

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Chesterfield 240 days ago

For his club Mounga has been extremely consistent with a pack that performs, and after 50 tests we are finally seeing his form translate to the test arena.
Suggesting he is a great without the consistent results on the board for the All Blacks is getting ahead of oneself.
He played very well in Paris, but the Bokke in Twickenham and the French match not so much.
His touch finding is often short or misses and is a work-on.
He’s talented and with a reliable forward pack performance the investment in him should pay dividends.
I’m not a fan of him at test level as yet, I think he has most of the requisite skills but like Barrett, needs his pack to show up and a regular centre combination especially if they are going to combat the de Allende and Kriel combo playing like loosies for the Bokke should they all make it to the final.
I hope he can prove my doubts wrong.

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Nickers 240 days ago

I don’t think it has been him being selected consistently that has led to his game improving. The selection/positional changes mentioned (4 new props who are mobile, can scrummage, can carry strongly and don’t knock the ball on 50% of the time, a proper 6 after the failed Akira Ioane experiment, Scott Barrett coming of age, and Jordie at 12) combined with a refreshed attack and better coaching in forwards has accounted for 90%+ of the improvement I think. He has faster ball, a serious ball carrying threat outside him, and a dynamic attacking structure to play in that asks a lot of questions of the defence.

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Ben 240 days ago

Always thought Ritchie was a bit predictable and way too steady for an AB flyhalf. Watching him the past two seasons has been an eye opener. He’s conservative when he needs to be, his outside backs always look better than him, which is a good thing. He has incredibly fast hands in distribution and his kicking out of hand is pinpoint accurate. His decision making is spot on. He will go down as one of the great AB fly halves, not flashy, blends into team so doesn’t stand out, consistently good.

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