Beauden Barrett might well be the best first flyhalf in New Zealand and Jordie Barrett looks to have established himself as the ideal inside centre, but the chances of them running out together as a five-eighths combination appears slim at best.
Beauden Barrett’s last opportunity for the season in the All Blacks No 10 jersey has likely come and gone against Scotland.
With that likely goes Barrett’s chances of reasserting himself in the role ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, with Richie Mo’unga the clear and obvious choice at first five-eighth based on his consistent body of work throughout the season.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Mo’unga’s the best man for the job – but it would be difficult to justify selecting Barrett ahead of his Crusaders rival in the games that count, with last weekend’s less-than-impressive showing against Scotland the final nail in the coffin.
This year, Mo’unga has benefited from some much-needed consistency in selection – something that’s been sorely missing for a number of campaigns.
31-year-old Barrett took over as New Zealand’s first-choice pivot relatively swiftly following Dan Carter’s retirement from the international game at the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Aaron Cruden was the heir-apparent to Carter and started the All Blacks’ opening two Tests of 2016 at first five-eighth with Barrett on the bench but when Cruden went down with a neck injury in the second Test, Barrett took the reins.
So began a run of eight fixtures on the trot where Barrett was entrusted with the No 10 jersey.
The All Blacks suffered just one defeat that year – their historic loss at the hands of Ireland in Chicago – and Barrett was quite rightly named World Rugby Player of the Year after starting 11 of the All Blacks’ 14 matches (10 at first five) and proving hugely influential throughout the successful season.
In 2017, Barrett started at flyhalf in 12 of New Zealand’s 14 Test matches, slotting in once at fullback, and sitting out the third Bledisloe Cup match of the campaign as well as the team’s mid-week fixture against a France XV. On just two occasions were the All Blacks bested that year, by the British and Irish Lions in July, and by Australia during that third Bledisloe encounter when Barrett was absent. Once again, Barrett was named Player of the Year.
The Mo’unga-Barrett combination never really gelled as a unit and with other issues in the backline, the 2019 World Cup campaign went down as another where you could never say for sure if New Zealand had the right players on the park at the right time.
2018 went much the same way, with Barrett absent from just three fixtures.
Consistency was the name of the game, with Barrett a semi-permanent selection in the No 10 jersey – and both he and his nation benefited from it. In the years since, that consistency has been largely missing – until now.
When Damian McKenzie, New Zealand’s first-choice fullback, went down injured in the lead-up to the 2019 Test season, Barrett was asked to fill his void in the backfield with the inexperienced (at least in international terms) Richie Mo’unga stepping in at flyhalf.
There were some who believed Barrett’s best position was No 15 while Mo’unga had just finished leading the Crusaders to a third-straight title so confidence levels of NZ fans didn’t exactly take a massive hit going into the Test calendar. But the Mo’unga-Barrett combination never really gelled as a unit and with other issues in the backline, the 2019 World Cup campaign went down as another where you could never say for sure if New Zealand had the right players on the park at the right time.
Barrett and Mo’unga have again shared duties in the No 10 role since Ian Foster took over as head coach but the All Blacks appear to have turned a page since their July series-loss to Ireland.
While Barrett started at first five in the opening four Tests of the season, Mo’unga had an uninterrupted run of eight matches at No 10 – and it appears Foster believes he holds the keys to a possible World Cup success in 2023, with his almost certain selection against England set to confirm that.
Since that initial run of starts – brought about due to a rather impressive Super Rugby campaign – Barrett has had to fight for starts in the first five position. In latter times, Barrett has been entrusted with the No 15 jersey, with brother Jordie moving into the midfield, and that could be where Barrett sees out his days as an All Black.
“I’ve been happy in my role, whatever it is,” Barrett said ahead of the Scotland match – his first in the No 10 jersey since taking on the Springboks in Mbombela. “[Whether it’s] contributing at training and obviously on the weekend, first game back for a while, five weeks or so.
“Every opportunity I get starting, whether it’s 10 or 15, that’s one that I get excited about and it’s going to be a good challenge for me, whoever I’m up against in the other team but more importantly focusing on what we can do and the performance we can have.”
The fixture in Edinburgh wasn’t exactly a happy ‘homecoming’ for Barrett. His short kicking game produced some nice rewards but that was about the only positive point to come out of the match for the stand-in No 10 in a game where Scotland really should have made history and grabbed a first-ever win over the men in black.
With the comparatively minuscule David Havili at No 12, the All Blacks have so often had to play from behind the gain line.
That’s not entirely down to Barrett, however. While Mo’unga has looked at his best with the forwards humming along, Aaron Smith giving quick ball from the base of the breakdown and Jordie Barrett on hand to cart the ball up in the midfield, Beauden Barrett was in an entirely different situation.
The forwards weren’t dominated in Scotland but they certainly didn’t have the upper hand for much of the match, and that meant Finlay Christie’s service in just his third start in black wasn’t anywhere Smith’s standard. Perhaps the most important factor, however, was the absence of brother Jordie.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Jordie Barrett has been a game-changer in the midfield for the All Blacks this year. With the comparatively minuscule David Havili at No 12, the All Blacks have so often had to play from behind the gain line. If the All Blacks haven’t been able to glide through holes or skip around defenders, there’s been little to no ground made in the backline. Jordie Barrett has changed that.
Beauden Barrett wasn’t able to call on his brother to take on those crash ball responsibilities on Sunday, however, because Jordie was parked at fullback.
The problem for NZ, however, is that the Barrett brothers appear to be the only players that coach Ian Foster trusts to play at fullback – which means that a Barrett-Barrett 10-12 combination is effectively out of the equation.
Foster name-dropped both Stephen Perofeta and David Havili as players the coaches considered as possible fill-ins at the back for the game against Scotland but the former has had next to no game time in the black jersey and is probably at long odds to make the World Cup squad, while the latter hasn’t featured in the role at all throughout 2022.
Will Jordan might be the only candidate to take over at the back and perhaps would have been given the role against Scotland were he not unavailable through injury but even he’s never had a run at 15 for the All Blacks, and with just five Tests on the cards next year before the World Cup kicks off, it’s difficult to see him having that opportunity.
All of which is to say that the likelihood of Beauden Barrett and Jordie Barrett combining at 10 and 12 for the New Zealand national slide anytime in the future is getting slimmer by the day.
With the right man at his side, Beauden Barrett could well be the All Blacks’ best option at flyhalf – but that’s a scenario that appears destined to never unfold.
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