Father of All Blacks’ Barrett clan has plenty to smile about
Kevin ‘Smiley’ Barrett recalls his family’s time in Meath where his sons played GAA
Brothers Jordie, Scott and Beauden Barrett of New Zealand pose for a photo with their parents Kevin and Robyn Barrett after they all featured against Samoa last month. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho
Two weeks ago the Barretts became the first trio of brothers to represent New Zealand in the same match when Jordie joined Beauden and Scott as an All Black. Sitting in the stand was their family, including their dad Kevin “Smiley” Barrett, who normally only get together once a year. But Christmas had come early.
More than 40 sets of brothers have played for New Zealand, but Sam, George and Luke Whitelock are the only trio, and they never played in the same Test. It’s some achievement. They are a throwback to the roots of All Blacks legends. Men of the soil reared on a coastal dairy farm not far from New Plymouth. Maybe, as Barrett snr has said, it’s something in the milk.
Barrett himself played for the Hurricanes for two years and Taranaki 167 times, as well as spending a season with Buccaneers during the family’s 16-month stint on a farm in Co Meath just after the turn of the millennium.
This has been another momentous week for the Barretts, with three of their boys playing against the Lions within five days. On Tuesday morning, Barrett snr made the first 4½-hour drive between the family farm and Wellington to see Jordie play a starring role, first at fullback and then outhalf for the Hurricanes.
He went to his favourite haunt in Wellington, the D4 on Featherston, the first of four D4 pubs in Wellington opened by Dermot and Barry Murphy from Ringsend in 2007. Barrett drove back on Wednesday to tend to the farm, returning Friday to make a long weekend out of the second Test.
Tough number eight
Among the rugby photos and memorabilia on the walls of the pub are some posters advertising Sunday night’s event, A Night Of Beaudenism, which will feature an unnamed special guest. That guest will be Kevin “Smiley” Barrett.
“Beauden is Jesus, but Smiley is God,” says Barry by way of introduction.
This week atones for the Lions’ 1993 tour. A tough, durable number eight in his own playing days with Taranaki, he missed out on that meeting with the tourists.
“I had pretty bad luck actually with international teams. I had a broken leg back in ‘93. It was a club game and the scrum came down on my lower leg.”
No doubt he smiled through it. The nickname is self-evident. The smile remains almost constant. “It just cropped up one day in rugby circles. I was in my early 20s. I don’t know who came up with it. But I’m always smiling, I guess, and it stuck.”
Barrett himself grew up on the family farm in Pungarehu, a small coastal town, and attended Francis Douglas College in New Plymouth. He played for the school’s first XV and left in fifth form, a year early, to work on the family farm. “In those days not too many went through to tertiary education or to ‘Uni’. Probably in hindsight I wish I had stayed another year. I just wanted to be a farmer.”
His dad, Ted, also played rugby at school but thereafter concentrated on cricket, and did a little boxing. “My dad’s parents died when he was 15, and there was only him and his two brothers. Both Dad’s grandparents were Irish.”
Barrett and Robyn met and married in their early 20s, and they considered moving abroad, for him to play rugby, before they had children. They had lined up someone to manage the farm but nothing initially came of enquiries to play in France or Ireland, where he missed out by one generation on qualifying through his bloodline. In any event, those plans were shelved when Barrett’s younger brother, Tommy, died in a car crash, and they decided to stay on the farm and raise children.
‘I wanted to retire’
Towards the end of his playing career in the late 90s, they considered moving abroad again.
“Robyn had always said, ‘Why don’t we go overseas?’ But I’d had rugby up to here,” he says, passing his hand across his forehead. “I wanted to retire.”
Subsequently, a friend of a friend informed him of a farmer in Ireland who was looking for a farm manager in Meath. “Initially we thought, ‘Nah, damnit, it’s going to cost us about three grand to go over and back.’ But then we thought ‘Stuff it, let’s go.’ We had five boys then and wee Genna was only 18 months old. So off we went to Ballinacree in Co Meath.
“It was life changing for us. I was used to it, and I was out working with an Irish lad and a Welsh lad, then just go to the local pub with the locals. It was a bit harder on Robyn at the start, because she was at home with the kids.”
They went on January 5th, 2000, and stayed for 16 months. Beauden was eight, and went to St Fiach’s National School with his older brother Kane and Scott, then six, whereas Robyn was at home with Blake (4½), Jordie (almost three) and baby Genna. Zara and Ella were born after they returned to New Zealand in April 2001.
“But after a couple of months she was happy as she got to know people. It was the best thing we ever did.” The All Blacks end-of-year tour and rematch with Ireland in Dublin afforded him the chance to see old friends. “We’ve got friends for life. They’re always pleased to see us, but pleased to see the arse end of us.”
Barrett, then 34, joined Buccaneers for the 2000-01 season, playing in the secondrow. By contrast, the boys focused on football – Beauden becoming a fan of Manchester United and Real Madrid – and Gaelic football.
“The boys played GAA football in the local Ballinacree club. I actually played too. I used it for my fitness, and I got a few yellow cards. I introduced rugby rules to Ballinacree, notably the ‘fend’, which was just normal for me,” he recalls, laughing.
‘The boys loved Ireland’
After they returned to New Zealand, Buccaneers flew him back to Ireland for their last three AIL games. “Buccaneers had won promotion to Division 1 and we went through a couple of coaches, which wasn’t ideal. We had this Australian coach and they fired him because we weren’t going too well, and we went down to Limerick and beat Garryowen (28-15). I remember that.” Buccaneers retained their status quite comfortably.
“It was a great 16 months. The boys loved it. We had snow, something we’d never had in New Zealand, even though we only live 11km from the mountains. We live right on the coast. It’s the most western point, halfway between Auckland and Wellington, right on the peninsula on the left hand side. It’s pretty windy but New Plymouth, which is only half an hour away, which was voted the best city in the world three years ago.
“My brother ‘Fifty’, his name is Phillip but everyone calls him ‘Fifty’, has a farm on the coast and we’re the next one up.” Barrett has an organic dairy farm of about 93 hectares, and supplies milk to the dairy co-op, Fonterra.
Legend has it that the boys’ mum would make them run barefoot home from school rather than take the school bus, which given its stops and detours, they’d often beat. “That’s correct. The boys ran cross-country so were pretty fit anyway.”
Save for attending Mass or family events, like the vast majority of boys in rural New Zealand, they were usually barefoot, and did so when turning up at St Fiach’s in Ballinacree. “All the other kids were looking down thinking ‘Who the hell are those tinkers in their bare feet?’,” recalls Barrett with another laugh.
The boys hadn’t started playing rugby before returning from New Zealand. “They were just kids and played on the back lawn. A lot of them start off at four or five when they’re flipping this high,” says Barrett, pointing to his waist. “We didn’t think they missed out on much, and could just run around being normal kids on the back lawn.”
Back home, Phillip, or ‘Fifty’ had been coaching the Pungarehu school’s team, and at this point Barrett took over from his brother. With Kane, Beauden and Scott in the team, they won the McLeod Shield three years in a row. “We only had 84 pupils. They were little fellas but we just punched above our weight.”
Lured into coaching
He had been lured into coaching when Wayne Smith, then with Canterbury, introduced a skills plan in Taranaki in the mid-90s.
“I could see the benefits of forwards being skilful. I thought the boys would be big like me and end up in the forwards. Being a school team it was only 10-a-side, so I just taught the boys skills – pass both ways, kick with both feet and run with the ball in both hands.
“As soon as you tuck the ball under one arm, you’ve told the opposition you’re going to run. But if you’ve got it in two hands, they’re in two minds. You’ve got them thinking what you are going to do next.”
Kane had a huge left boot and kicked goals when he went to secondary school at Francis Douglas, as did Beauden, Blake and Geordie, and even Scott.
All the boys shone in the school’s first XV, so much so that Kane, Beauden, Scott and Jordie made the New Zealand Secondary Schools squad, even though they were in the same age groups as more physically developed Maori and Polynesian kids.
Alas, Kane’s career was cut short by concussion after playing for the New Zealand Schools and Under-20 sides, and Taranaki and the Blues.
“Fitness was a big thing too. I always prided myself on being fit. You’ve got to be fit to play any sport, and what I’ve learned is that in tight games you’ll win them in the last five or 10 minutes.”
Organic milk, skills and fitness, but the genes clearly have it too. Robyn was a good netball player, a cross-country runner and played basketball for the New Zealand Under-18 team.
“I could see the benefits of playing basketball too. As well as keeping you fit during the winter it’s good for ball-handling skills, aerial skills and hand to eye. That’s why I could see the benefit of playing soccer. Kane and Beauden played soccer. Actually when we got home from Ireland, the boys took up golf. Jordan, Blake and Beauden love their golf.”
Genna (18) is a very good swimmer, almost making the New Zealand under-18 team last year, and an accomplished surfer. Like Genna, Zara (14) and Ella (12) also play netball, while Ella is a good swimmer and dancer.
Barrett could tell that Beauden was going to be a good rugby player from about the age of 12. “He had those few extra skills. He was very capable with both feet. He could run and carried the ball with both hands. He was small but he had the ability to beat people. He wasn’t fast then but he worked on his speed.
“After he left school he was very keen on having a crack at Aussie Rules in Australia. I looked into getting him over there when he first missed out on New Zealand Schools. I always said it’s only one man’s opinion. He was on the bench and missed the cut.”
‘The rest is history’
One day Beauden joined Kane at a Taranaki sevens training session and, hey presto, made the squad.
“Gordon Tietjens [the celebrated New Zealand Sevens coach for 22 years] was always looking for talent and he picked Beauden out.” Beauden played in the 2010 World Sevens Series in England and Scotland, and on foot of this played for Taranaki in the ITM Cup. “The following year the Hurricanes offered him a wider training contract and the rest is history.”
Scott also went to Lincoln University in Christchurch, making their under-20s and having made the New Zealand under-20s in 2013, played for two years with Canterbury and broke into the Crusaders squad in 2014. He made his All Blacks debut in the defeat to Ireland in Chicago, as a try-scoring replacement.
Jordie also came through the Lincoln University/Canterbury production line, and also made the New Zealand Under-20s. Snapped up by the Hurricanes at the end of last year, and has progressed rapidly.
All the while Beauden was the trailblazer. In 2011, there was a Junior World Cup with the Baby Blacks, the following year a prolific breakthrough season with the Hurricanes as well as an All Blacks debut in the 60-0 win over Ireland in Hamilton, a role as an impact sub at the 2015 World Cup when scoring their last try in the final, before becoming the heir to Dan Carter’s throne in 2016 when an ever present in the Hurricanes Super Rugby success and the All Blacks rout of all-comers in the Rugby Championship. He scored nine tries in a calendar year for the All Blacks and was crowned World Player of the Year.
Barrett snr went to all of the World Cup games with several good friends, and his wife Robyn and his brother Fifty joined them before the final.
Two weeks ago, Beauden played his 50th Test for the All Blacks, and Scott his fifth as Jordie made his debut against Samoa.
“We’re very proud parents. We’re proud of all our children, and it’s great to see the pleasure it gives the grandparents. I probably get more pleasure out of watching my kids than when I was playing.”
Warren Gatland, a playing rival of Barrett’s back in the day, speaks warmly of Smiley and not least Beauden, as a respectful, modest, grounded, well-reared boy. Smiley and Robyn appear to have done a good job in many ways.
“We’re just country folk,” says Barrett. “We enjoy our family and freedom, and just love getting out there and supporting our kids. The coaches seem to just love the boys, because of who they are. Just no fuss.
“When Beauden used to first take to the paddock me and Robyn would just sit there like nervous wrecks, especially first-five [outhalf]. With Scotty it was a lot easier, because he’s just in the forward pack, taking kick-offs and just smashing rucks etc . . .”
But one thing above all else matters in the Barretts’ remarkable story.
“They’ve worked very hard to get there. The boys have said they got a lot of their traits from their mum and dad, seeing how we go about things in life and on the farm. You do the hard yards and you’ll get the rewards, no matter what you’re doing in life.”