Beauden Barrett opens up on his toughest season yet

Author
Liam Napier, NZ Herald,
Section
Rugby,
Publish Date
Sunday, 25 November 2018, 3:35PM
Beauden Barrett has been under intense scrutiny over the past year. (Photo / Getty)
Beauden Barrett has been under intense scrutiny over the past year. (Photo / Getty)

No rugby player has been analysed more in 2018 than Beauden Barrett. That's the nature of the beast as the All Blacks first five-eighth, and arguably the world's most lethal attacking threat.

If Barrett feels the intense, constant glare, he sure doesn't show it. Despite his openness about ongoing attempts to overcome obvious challenges with his own and the All Blacks' game, Barrett remains confident of guiding the team to a third straight World Cup title in Japan next year.

Keep calm and carry on.

This season, as always, Barrett produced individual highlights, such as four tries in the Eden Park Bledisloe Cup rout, etching his name in history as the first No 10 in test rugby to do so.

Barrett typically brushes off that night, qualifying such an achievement as merely being "Johnny on the spot".

"There was nothing special about it," Barrett said ahead of New Zealand's final test of the year in Rome overnight. "It was one of those games where it all goes your way."

Though unlikely to claim a third gong he is once again in contention for World Rugby Player of the Year. His 25 tries is also the most in test history by a first-five.

This year has been the most challenging of Beauden Barrett's career. Photo /Getty Images

This year has been the most challenging of Beauden Barrett's career. Photo /Getty Images

But in many other respects, this year has also been a rocky ride. Setbacks have seen him adopt a new mentality, one where he is learning to appreciate he will never be the complete package.

"I'm such a perfectionist and I want to do everything right, kick every goal, do everything perfectly, but that is not reality. You've got to understand and accept that nothing in the world is perfect. The sooner you understand that, the better it will be."

To fully grasp the most challenging season of Barrett's career, we must go back to the Hurricanes and what proved a difficult campaign.

Behind the scenes, internal ructions between Chris Boyd, now leading Northampton, and John Plumtree, promoted to Hurricanes head coach next year, did not make life easy for someone expected to follow conflicting game plans at times.

Only in the 30-12 semifinal loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch, where the Hurricanes failed to fire a shot, with their forward pack steamrolled, did the true extent of the troubles reveal themselves.

"We were strong enough as leaders of that team to just get on with it. It was clear there was a little bit of disruption with the transition but the coaches did their best to move on for the benefit of the team.

"We weren't too pleased with how we finished the season and where we got to with our game and results. Yes, we were up against a quality Crusaders team at home, but I guess the damage was done.

"You have to earn the right to host home quarter-finals and semifinals. That makes such a big difference in Super Rugby.

"We didn't have the game for it and it's something that Plum is seriously keen on changing in the way we play at the Hurricanes, having more focus on the maul and options off that and adopting a bit of a South African mentality."

For those with short memories, the narrative around Barrett was set then and there. The in-form Richie Mo'unga led the Crusaders to their second successive title, and some believed he should immediately start for the All Blacks.

Barrett, however, delivered on the All Blacks' faith in June and by playing a major role in locking away the Bledisloe Cup. But then he had a horror night off the tee in Wellington where he kicked two from six as the Springboks held on to pull off a remarkable upset.

It didn't help, either, that the All Blacks collectively failed to take one penalty in front of the posts, or set up for the dropped goal.

That shock defeat proved the catalyst for the mental shift that's since seen Barrett strike the ball brilliantly and also knock over two drop goals.

"We weren't in the right place mentally and with our game in Wellington, especially me personally," says Barrett.

"I learnt a lot from a psychological point of view about having to move on and flush things and not live on previous mistakes.

"That was a big learning curve and something I've carried through right up until today; having that ability to focus on what's next.

"I also understand that teams will find ways to frustrate me, get to me, but you have to accept that and take it as a privilege they are doing that.

"Being able to deal with whatever they are throwing at us is the challenge and the biggest thing I've been working on for our game going forward."

This is where we approach much of the criticism around Barrett's game.

When Barrett first assumed the No 10 throne from Dan Carter in 2016, everything clicked. He was untouchable, the best player on the planet by the length of his family's Taranaki farm.

Naturally opposition then picked apart his game, realising the need to do everything possible to close down any hint of time and space. Fail, and they would be badly burnt.

Defences have changed, too - most now flying up from rucks, pushing hard on the edges and leaving two players back to hold the corners.

Barrett's challenge - not his alone in the All Blacks - is to manoeuvre the ball around the umbrella to space.

This is also exactly where the All Blacks, as a collective, are attempting to tweak their game after using formulaic plays involving tight forwards in the middle of the park for a number of years.

Beauden Barrett's next move will be intensely scrutinised. Photo / Getty Images

Beauden Barrett's next move will be intensely scrutinised. Photo / Getty Images

"That's where we're at with our game and finding ways to deal with that because it just shows, particularly when conditions aren't in your favour, how difficult it is to attack those defences.

"You see a lot of similarities across the world now with defences, so trying to be creative, that's exciting for us and our game. That's where the point of difference will come from, I think."

Barrett admits building instinctive connections, and identifying adjustments in the heat of the moment with others, in order to pull the right trigger on the next play, remains a work in progress.

"That's where the biggest area of growth is for this team, and the ability to have those chats. To do so is probably the key ingredient."

Any time the All Blacks lose, particularly so close to the pinnacle tournament, the nation panics.

Talk to Barrett, though, and there's no sense of alarm. He says you have to respect Ireland and take into account the influence of the feverish Dublin crowd.

"It was very uplifting. They had very few moments and they took them. The crowd was losing it every time they did anything half-decent. It was unbelievably awesome to see. As hard as it was to play against, it was such a great atmosphere.

"It could be like that at a World Cup because everyone likes to support Ireland, that's just the way it is.

"The opportunities we missed, it could be a different conversation we're having if on the day we were good enough to take those. The simple fact is we weren't, but the exciting thing is we have to work on being better at executing those. There's plenty of growth there."

 

Given the All Blacks' struggles on this northern tour against England and Ireland, debate continues to rage about whether Barrett is better suited to fullback, with Mo'unga instead pulling the reins from first five-eighths. That's not a shift on Barrett's radar.

"To be honest, this is news to me, I don't read anything. I know the coaches here see me as a 10, so that's all I'm focusing on at the moment, and if I finish the game at 15, then that's a bonus, because the best place to be is on the field.

"Look, everyone in New Zealand has their opinion because everyone in New Zealand knows everything about rugby and that's the way it is, so I don't buy into any of that."

Clearly, Barrett is well aware and intent to improve areas of his game to help drive the All Blacks through these testing times.

But come Japan next year, he also appears supremely confident they will again click when it matters most.

"The opportunity to go three in a row - no one has done it before. That's the sort of thing that excites the All Blacks, excites me. It's a huge opportunity. Having tasted Tokyo in the last few years, it will be a pretty awesome place to do it.

"It's good to come up here and get a bit of a taste of Northern Hemisphere footy. The pleasing thing is the conditions will be better than here, so that's good to know. That excites us more, knowing we can potentially play with ball in hand a bit more."

Beyond the World Cup, Barrett is expected to take a one-year sabbatical, probably in Japan, as part of a long-term deal with New Zealand Rugby.

"That is an option, one of the options, but I haven't actually sat down with my management. It's something I'm going to do in the next few months to go through all those scenarios.

"I'm only 27. I still feel I've got plenty to give. Just what that looks like, I'm not sure at the moment."

As long as Barrett laces the boots, his next move will be intensely scrutinised by opposition and public alike.

It's all part of the gig.

 

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