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No more false starts in battle for All Blacks No 10 jersey

Gregor Paul

There’s going to be an old-fashioned battle for the All Blacks No 10 jersey this year. We will be stepping back in time to re-live what is something of a New Zealand speciality – two great first fives battling for supremacy.

It’s a story that has already had multiple chapters. It began, or at least everyone is happy to say it did, when Grant Fox found himself in competition with Frano Botica in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Fox, a classic No 10 with a traditional skill-set that was iced by his immaculate goal-kicking, was pitted against the more creative and athletic Botica, who could split defences with his pace.

The mid-to-late 1990s saw a new battle develop along similar lines. There was Canterbury’s Andrew Mehrtens, classic in style, yet also a neat runner, vying against Carlos Spencer of Auckland. 

Both great players in their different ways and the All Blacks could function brilliantly with either at first-receiver. Yet for fans, there was no choice – you had to be in one camp or the other.

The latter was a genius in the way he could torment defences with his running and passing but his game management could be irregular and unorthodox.

Both great players in their different ways and the All Blacks could function brilliantly with either at first-receiver. Yet for fans, there was no choice – you had to be in one camp or the other.

For the briefest of periods there was some division in 2016 about whether Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett should take over from Dan Carter. 

Initially that year, the selectors decided Cruden had earned the right to have first go in the jersey. He lasted a test and 20 minutes before injury hit him and Barrett came off the bench against Wales in Wellington and never looked back.

Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett engaged in a short rivalry to determine who would replace Dan Carter following the 2015 World Cup. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

His brilliance was undeniable and even when Cruden recovered to be fit for the Bledisloe Cup series, he was stuck on the bench. 

As All Blacks coach at the time, Steve Hansen, explained: “Barrett’s just been so good that you want him on the park for 80 minutes, not just 40 or 50. He’s really forced our hand and said: ‘You’ve just got to pick me’.”

Once Barrett was established in the role, there was not, for the next two and a half years at least, any dispute about his right to be there. How could there have been? He was World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 and short-listed again in 2018.

But by the latter part of 2018 there were signs of the All Blacks occasionally losing their way on attack when they faced defensively-minded teams.

Barrett, for all his attacking genius, was picking up a group of detractors who argued his game management wasn’t strong enough at times. 

We have to build slowly with Richie and build his experience. But in the meantime we’ve got a player in Beauden who, as I said, has been the world’s best player the last two years, we won’t be in any rush to shift him.

Steve Hansen on transitioning Richie Mo’unga into test rugby

What fuelled that lobby, was their conviction that young Richie Mo’unga was the better tactical navigator and therefore the better choice for the All Blacks to pick at No 10.

At first, the All Blacks were resistant to that concept. As Hansen would say many times in 2018, Mo’unga was a baby in test rugby and any coach who dismissed the value of experience, especially in such a critical position, would pay dearly for it.

“He’s got competition from the specialist five-eighth in Beauden Barrett, he’s played 64 tests I think it is,” Hansen dryly quipped when he was asked in August 2018 if it was time to give Mo’unga the No 10 jersey.

“Both of them are very good rugby players, our job is to maximise the talent we’ve got and over time you will see Richie get more test matches I’m sure. But I think about a bloke prior to the World Cup (2015) we went to and everyone wanted us to drop Dan Carter.

“He had one ingredient the other blokes didn’t have and that was experience. We have to build slowly with Richie and build his experience. But in the meantime we’ve got a player in Beauden who, as I said, has been the world’s best player the last two years, we won’t be in any rush to shift him.”

Barrett and Mo’unga combined for a masterclass in 2020’s demolition of the Wallabies in Brisbane. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Two things changed in 2019 to force a re-think. The first was that Hansen and the coaching team fixed on the idea of having two, genuine play-makers in the backline: one at 10 and one at fullback.

And when Damian McKenzie was ruled out for the year with a knee injury, the only way to fulfil the dual play-making brief was to play Barrett at fullback – a position with which he had considerable familiarity having played most of his All Blacks career between 2012 and 2015 there.

Barrett at fullback, though, was never intended to be a long-term measure. The dual play-making strategy? Yes. Barrett at fullback? No – and if COVID hadn’t struck to reduce the programme to just six tests last year, we would have most likely seen new head coach Ian Foster make a decision on his preferred No 10.

That decision is almost certainly going to be made this year. Barrett, who willingly moved to fullback for the greater good of the team in 2019 and 2020, has made it clear he is determined to play back in his preferred No 10 role.

He doesn’t see himself as a fullback and would rather tussle it out with Mo’unga. If he goes head-to-head and can’t convince Foster he’s the better choice, then so be it. Barrett, it seems, would rather be on the bench as a back-up 10 than start at fullback and that’s a decision that has won universal support, including from former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina.

You bring Barrett back from Japan to see how he is and you let the two 10s compete for a starting role. Let’s be perfectly honest here, either one of those two 10s can start, Beauden or Mo’unga. We can have them fight it out.

Former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina on how to re-integrate Beauden Barrett into the All Blacks

“I think he’s playing some spectacular football at the moment: his decision-making, his kicking and I think Mo’unga deserves to be there,” Muliaina said on The Breakdown.

“You bring Barrett back from Japan to see how he is and you let the two 10s compete for a starting role. Let’s be perfectly honest here, either one of those two 10s can start, Beauden or Mo’unga. We can have them fight it out. Let’s have them fight it out.”

The intriguing thing, of course, to ponder in this forthcoming battle, is who will win it? Having dominated Super Rugby and played at 10 in the bulk of the tests in 2019 and last year, Mo’unga has become a firm favourite with many.

There’s also an element of fairness to consider. Mo’unga has been in New Zealand slogging it out in Super Rugby while Barrett has been in Japan, playing club football there for an extraordinary sum of money.

No one thinks it would be right, then, for Barrett to be immediately installed at No 10 for the first tests of the year. He’ll have to bide his time – be gently phased in during July, most likely picking up game time from the bench against Fiji and Tonga.

Richie Mo’unga was exemplary in the Super Rugby Aotearoa grand final, showcasing his range of skills and leading the Crusaders around the park in their win. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

But come August and the Bledisloe Cup, when he’s proven his fitness and desire again and served a penance of sorts, Barrett may well emerge as the preferred choice of Foster.

What has maybe been forgotten over time is just how devastating Barrett is and how brilliant he can be at breaking defences and forcing tests into unstructured, open affairs that suit the All Blacks.

He’s also a player who doesn’t get enough credit for his game management, which is often clever and astute. Some of that perception about Barrett as an erratic game manager is caused by his occasionally erratic goal-kicking. 

But not only is it wrong to conflate those two things, but there are solid goal-kicking alternatives now, as most likely, either Jordie Barrett or McKenzie are going to be used at fullback.

Just as important to remember is that Mo’unga has not yet delivered the sort of consistent brilliance in the test arena as he has playing for the Crusaders.

The process will be more interesting perhaps than the outcome. The real fun of these positional scraps is seeing how they ebb and flow and how the respective protagonists respond to the pressure and expectation.

There have been flashes and occasional strong games where he’s looked a million dollars, but on the whole, he’s not yet played well enough for long enough to be considered a world class option at No 10.

That may come as he’s clearly capable of playing superb rugby and is high on confidence after yet another dominant campaign with the Crusaders. 

Who knows which of the two will emerge successful in this impending battle and that’s what makes the situation so intriguing. 

The process will be more interesting perhaps than the outcome. The real fun of these positional scraps is seeing how they ebb and flow and how the respective protagonists respond to the pressure and expectation.

As Muliaina says, either way, the All Blacks will be well served. But in time, or by mid-way through the season, it may have become apparent that they will be better served with Barrett at No 10.

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