Beauden Barrett could shortly become the first player ever to be crowned World Rugby player of the year three times in a row.
Despite this global recognition of excellence, there remarkably exists in New Zealand at present a debate about his place in the team.
Barrett was at his absolute best against Australia in August when he scored a record four tries at Eden Park.
In the last three months, Barrett and the All Blacks’ form has dipped and Richie Mo’unga has surfaced as a compelling challenger for Barrett’s position.
How real is the Barrett/Mo’unga debate?
Is it merely a case of patriotic panic following some recent stumbles or do the All Blacks require a new pivot to successfully defend the William Webb Ellis Trophy in 2019?
Barrett and structure
The All Blacks have smashed Rugby Championship scoring records with Barrett running the cutter, so why is there doubt about his ability to direct a backline effectively?
The All Blacks’ game structure is formulated to use lateral ball movement and pass close to the defensive line to create half gaps initially before exploiting shorter sides when opponents are disorganised or outnumbered. Barrett is at his best playing close to the line, drawing in defenders or using his pace to slip through.
When Barrett isn’t doing this, does his distribution appear to be highly telegraphed and therefore create clutter?
Does Barrett become over-reliant on superior individual skill when things are going against the All Blacks? Does Barrett overplay his hand, allowing confusion to reign in the entire back division?
Should the forwards be exclusively blamed for Barrett’s sudden demise? Most flyhalfs struggle to take off when heading backwards.
Nobody has proven to be a more brilliant match-winner in the past three seasons than Barrett. Surely he must remain in the starting team. Why limit the minutes of your best player?
Barrett is intuitively the greatest talent in the game. By contrast, Mo’unga is certainly more textbook, but not absent of flair. A highly organised player with a growing confidence, Mo’unga best showcased his qualities with a strong bench display against the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld.
Would the All Blacks benefit from someone more conventional than Barrett?
Could Barrett switch to fullback, thus keeping Ben Smith on the wing or eliminating the veteran Highlander altogether?
Is Barrett a poor goal kicker?
Barrett undeniably had a shocker against the Springboks but has kicked 17/18 attempts since.
In 2017, Barrett undoubtedly suffered a form blip with his kicking accuracy. He only slotted 63% of his goal kicks in the Super Rugby season.
However, in the past three seasons of Super Rugby, Barrett has actually kicked at a marginally higher success rate than Mo’unga – enjoying a higher success rate this year.
Since 2016, Barrett has kicked at a 75% success rate (193 attempts) for the All Blacks.
In 2018 that has increased to 82% which is the same rate of accuracy as Mo’unga (19/23).
Barrett’s Super Rugby goal kicking record (2016-2018)
Overall: 129/185 = 70%
Mo’unga’s Super Rugby goal kicking record (2016-2018)
Overall: 165/241 = 68%
Does Barrett kick too much?
One of the most interesting developments in the All Blacks strategy is the increased kicking. In 2016, Barrett kicked the ball 108 times in 13 Tests. In the same number of Tests last year he kicked the ball 174 times.
This season Barrett averages 16 kicks per Test, basically double his average of two seasons ago.
The obvious conclusion to draw from this is Barrett is kicking too often and the present All Black strategy doesn’t suit.
However, Barrett has always kicked the ball a lot – 206 more times than Mo’unga in the last three seasons of Super Rugby.
Despite kicking the ball more often than the Crusaders, the Hurricanes have scored more tries in two of the last three seasons.
Mo’unga, though, has proven to be an effective field kicker. Mo’unga appears to kick with better selectively and greater benefit than Barrett who would be advised to take a less-is-more approach.
What’s the verdict?
Daniel Carter was retained in 2015 and the World Cup wasa won. Barrett isn’t as complete as Carter, but as far as champions go he’s not far off. Mo’unga has rightly won acclaim for his performances, and with another strong Super Rugby campaign, will keep the debate alive in 2019.
However if the Steve Hansen era has taught us anything about success in the All Blacks, it’s that loyalty counts. The onus is on Barrett to keep Mo’unga at bay.