Beauden Barrett a call back to the romantic age of the outhalf
Modern defences have forced outhalves to became the executors of someone else’s will
New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett during the Rugby Championship match against South Africa at Kingspark Rugby stadium in Durban. Photograph: Getty Images
International rugby is a home again to outhalves, 10s who are fly as in knowing and clever.
The gulf between South Africa and New Zealand last weekend was graphically illustrated at stand-off where Beauden Barrett lay flat and directed the All Blacks’ heavy and light traffic astutely, while opposite him Morne Steyn stood deep and kicked.
The Springboks scored five penalties through Steyn’s boot, leading for a while in the first half, but New Zealand schemed nine tries to leave South Africa reflecting on a record home defeat before next month’s tour to Europe. Steyn had kicked all the points in the victory over Australia the week before as his side went back to what they have been most comfortable with, a slow game based on territory, but the sport’s zeitgeist has changed.
The top two sides in the world rankings, New Zealand and England, both have 10s who are able to see plays in advance rather than settle on a strategy without waiting to see if possession is recycled quickly or slowly.
When Daniel Carter made himself unavailable for New Zealand after last year’s World Cup, it was assumed that it would take his successor a while to settle into the position even though Aaron Cruden and Barrett hardly lacked experience.
Cruden had the first crack but when he was injured, Barrett stepped up and has made New Zealand even better. It was not that long ago that outhalves were seen as facilitators who had to operate in a markedly different way to their predecessors because of the way modern defences were organised. They were also required to tackle and present more of an obstacle than a speed bump.
The likes of Barry John, Phil Bennett and Tony Ward, impish 10s dowsed in devilry, were considered obsolete as Jonny Wilkinson, all structure and sinew, pocketed the keys to No10. The romantic age was over, faded into black and white. There was no space to drift into and outhalves became the executors of someone else’s will.
Barrett and George Ford are hardly throwbacks to John and Bennett, but neither are they Jonny-come-latelys. They are, in the grand traditions of outhalves, the masters of opportunity. They operate in a different time to their amateur forebears but not dimension: to look at Barrett suddenly changing direction, giving a pass and looping and running through gaps is to be reminded of the all-round qualities 10s have been blessed with through the years.
Barrett has started seven Test matches this year after twice coming on as a replacement. His 118 points include seven tries, more than any other player, although Ben Smith and Israel Dagg have both reached that mark (it is worth recording that 20 players have scored tries for the All Blacks this year in their nine internationals), as his ability to create and see space has allowed him to show off his own pace as well as that of those outside him.
Ford has yet to show Barrett’s relish for a break and England as a team are not as advanced as the All Blacks, but the one match Eddie Jones left him out of, the first Test in Australia in the summer, convinced the national head coach that without Ford at 10 his side’s attacking game suffered without a corresponding improvement in defence. And so he hooked Luther Burrell after just 29 minutes, moving Owen Farrell back to 12 and bringing on Ford. England did not look back in the series.
Ford does not seem to be regarded as a contender for the Lions in New Zealand in the summer with Jonathan Sexton, the Test outhalf on the tour to Australia in 2013, and Wales’s Dan Biggar deemed to be ahead of him. Nothing should have been decided yet and Biggar especially will have it all to prove in the November internationals and the Six Nations.
He was Wales’s standout player in the World Cup, not least for his ability under the high ball, but like Steyn he prefers to stand deep and kick. Wales’s attempts to increase their tempo last season brought mixed results, not least because they lacked an outside-half who was prepared to stand flat. When they did for an hour in the opening championship game against Ireland in Dublin last February, Rhys Priestland replacing the injured Biggar, they looked more dangerous but there were times when they passed when they should have kicked.
Wales need to find balance at outside-half, scanning rather than determining in advance and mixing up play, while it is also a big year for Sexton and Ireland who have had a highly structured approach in the Joe Schmidt years. Sexton with the Lions in Australia was a different, more reactive player and if last weekend was a yardstick, next year’s series is highly unlikely to be won with the boot.
South Africa’s new head coach Allister Coetzee started the year with Pat Lambie as his 10 in place of the injured Handre Pollard, quickly dumping him for Elton Jantjies, an attacking outhalf who had helped the Lions reach the Super Rugby final. Coetzee proclaimed he wanted to make his side more offensive, but opted for Steyn after a 41-13 defeat to New Zealand in Christchurch. They will arrive in Europe unsure about their direction of travel.
Australia’s heavy defeat to New Zealand prompted their head coach, Michael Cheika, to dust down Quade Cooper, a maverick 10 who has curbed some of his natural instincts so far. The Wallabies, the Springboks and Argentina will find comfort on their European tour in meeting opponents largely of similar quality, and none with the attacking menace of the All Blacks.
England should be an exception, if they have enough fit players to start the series. Farrell has yet to play this season, and while he would be at 12, Ford would have to assume the kicking duties, something he has not always been comfortable with in the past. While Ford has the ability to bounce back after a poor performance, he often struggles to right the ship when it goes off course during a match.
Barrett is not a goal-kicker in the mould of Steyn or Wilkinson, but for the moment that does not bother the All Blacks. Tries are their business.