Gordon D’Arcy: Lions must follow Crusaders lead to curb Beauden Barrett
Tourists can go a long way to stopping the All Blacks if they can stop the Hurricanes outhalf
The Crusaders did an excellent job of nullifying the threat of Beauden Barrett during their Super Rugby clash on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has cranked up his usual media relations. But these not so subtle pot shots at the Lions shouldn’t distract from what could be a major problem facing the All Blacks next month.
I’m not talking about Kieran Read’s broken thumb (he played most of the World Cup final with a botched ankle). Nor the recuperating Jerome Kaino, Dane Coles and Ben Smith.
None of the above.
A potential weakness, believe it or not, is Beauden Barrett.
All season long, Barrett and his younger big brother Jordie have been tearing it up in Super Rugby but last Saturday morning, on a soggy Christchurch pitch, Matt Todd and Ryan Crotty asked the sort of questions Andy Farrell will demand of whoever wears the Lions 7 and 12 jerseys.
Dan Carter’s performance in the second test in 2005 stands alone as the greatest showing by anyone against the Lions in the professional era.
No matter what happens 12 years on, he who wears the All Blacks number 10 will be compared to Carter. That, almost certainly, will be the current world player of the year.
Carter was the master of unravelling almost any defence in a test match. It might be off first phase or require multiple probes to discover the chink of light but he rarely over played his hand, especially if the opportunity wasn’t immediately apparent, knowing to chip away until he saw a genuine risk/reward.
I’m not sure Barrett is that player yet. The upcoming test series could prove me wrong.
New Zealand have been such a dominant force these past 18 months that Barrett has not be asked to chisel them out of trouble. The only game that sticks out was Chicago and much like last Saturday, when he was starved of possession, he dropped deeper and deeper, passing from a standing start, rather than his preferred full attacking flow, due to the pace of the defensive line speed.
Normally every aspect of New Zealand rugby is geared towards the All Blacks winning every game they play
Another glaring fact: The incumbent All Black place-kicker is not performing this duty for the Hurricanes (Jordie kicked four penalties against the Crusaders).
That must be of genuine concern to Hansen – just like Warren Gatland would not be delighted to see Isa Nacewa taking the tee off Johnny Sexton on Friday night against the Scarlets. Johnny wouldn’t be shy about saying something about this.
Aaron Cruden is coming back from concussion and while Ben Smith is still injured I’d be surprised to see Jordie at 15 come the first test.
But, otherwise, what’s the logic behind Jordie taking the kicks instead of Beauden?
Unless there is an unmentioned injury, I find it very strange because normally every aspect of New Zealand rugby is geared towards the All Blacks winning every game they play. This situation means that isn’t the case right now.
Anyway, the Crusaders defence locked up both Barrett brothers on Saturday.
With the New Zealand Super Rugby sides blasting the opposition off the park, their meetings with each other provides the Lions coaching staff with the most up to date material for analysis.
The most difficult attack for a team to defend can be the attack they employ themselves. You have such a bias towards the attacking aspect of the move that you can struggle to defend it. Sounds strange, but the Ospreys did it to Leinster in the 2013 Pro 12 final. Very cleverly, they opened us up with a move we had been running all year (13 comes short, 12 out the back and the winger comes up the middle).
I’m sure the All Blacks will at some stage use the Hurricanes high line defence that Crotty exploited on Saturday.
Sexton and Farrell are the best in Europe at throwing the sort of pass that puts a player through a similar hole. Or they kick in behind.
Barrett’s instinct is to skin his man on the outside before he ever considers a pass. The Crusaders used this instinct to isolate him.
Matt Todd, the third choice New Zealand openside, squared up in his face all game and shut down most options or, more importantly, squeezed the time he had to make the correct decision.
It reminded me of Serge Betsen sucking the oxygen out of Jonny Wilkinson’s bubble when France went after the English outhalf way back when.
Sexton knows all about this; marginally late tackles, not illegal enough to get a yellow card for Maro Itoje in the Six Nations, but enough to rattle the rugby quarterback.
The role of harassing a 10 is made for Brad Barritt but there’s no reason why Robbie Henshaw or Jonathan Davies can’t do it. Sean O’Brien and the two Welsh boys, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, are ideal specimens to replicate Todd’s man marking role.
Because if the Lions are to win this series, especially in wet conditions, old fashioned tactics and a reliable place-kicker will be needed.
Sexton delivered a flawless performance off the tee, and under severe pressure, as recently as Lyon. Johnny also knows what to expect in terms of late hits, but does Barrett?
What we do know is when the Crusaders targeted him, his game fell apart.
Now, some context is required. Barrett was the unanimous world player of the year in 2016 and has probably performed better, until now, in 2017.
But put pressure on any first receiver and he will struggle to pull off the sort of kick passes we have seen Julian Savea and Jordie Barrett gather this season. That’s what Todd and company achieved. And that’s what the Lions must do. Also, Liam Williams looks capable of contesting aerially with Savea out on the touchline.
For all the criticism of Barrett in this one match, Crotty looks better than ever in the Crusaders midfield. He was excellent in all aspects of second-five-eight play and will probably wear the 12 jersey against the Lions (perhaps with Sonny Bill Williams off the bench).
In the 17th minute of this derby, with the score 3-all (there was only one try in this very un-Super Rugby game), Ngani Laumape made a rare line break. Barrett attacked the short side where Crotty was isolated with Jordie Barrett and Savea on his outside.
Crotty showed the defensive intellect to deny the easy pass without committing to tackling either Barrett.
This brilliant positioning invited Beauden Barrett to steam through the gap, placing enormous pressure on the inside defenders to get across. Todd arrived and snuffed out the danger.
This was a big read by Crotty, but he placed the utmost faith on his inside defender and it paid off. Having Beauden at the bottom of a ruck with Jordie playing scrumhalf is not how the Hurricanes want to be initiating the third phase of an attack.
The Lions can’t but have noticed. Ireland used to have a mantra: Richie McCaw can’t steal our ball if he’s making tackles. The same applies to burying Barrett under the rubble of red jerseys.
As the game progressed, and the Crusaders pack kept slowing the Hurricanes ball, Barrett’s decision making only got worse.
Early in the second half he started going backwards to find a way around the Crusaders. This was alien behaviour to his natural game.
Taking ball from a ruck he shovelled it on, not even taking one step forward to fix a man. This told the Crusaders backrow that their defensive assault was working. Then he kicked poorly when he should have backed himself to run the ball.
This game became the ideal blueprint for how the Lions want the first test to unfold. It just shows it can happen to any player. When things go bad in a game like this, regardless of your mental fortitude, life has a terrible way of ramming further misery down your throat.
Barrett made an inexcusably poor defensive read in the 57th minute that allowed big blindside Pete Samu steam down field.
Again, there is context. The Crusaders had mauled the Hurricanes 15 metres down field. But it’s such a bad read you have to question his mindset. Who’s he defending out the back? There’s nobody there. Ardie Savea was covering the scrumhalf. Barrett leaps on his opposite number Richie Mo’unga after Samu was eventually hauled down in the Hurricanes 22 but it looked like he had no interest in hitting the big flanker.
The Crusaders, as they do better than anyone, kept their foot on their opponents throat, running out 20-12 winners, but Barrett had the last say as he sought to orchestrate a losing bonus point.
The clock ticks into red as he’s presented with the same picture as the previous 80 minutes: a teammate on his inside, four more outside him, there’s a Crusader right in his face to ensure only one passing option when he initiates that arcing outside run (instead of seeking to distribute earlier).
Barrett was just playing his natural game. It’s the same approach that saw him sprint over for a second All Blacks try after just 13 minutes of last November’s victory in Dublin.
Barrett’s body of work to date goes against so much of Saturday’s calamity but the Lions can view the Crusaders execution of a defensive strategy that negated the best player in the world as a fairly bright chink of light.
Of course it all stemmed from a dominant performance by a pack shorn of the injured Read and suspended Sam Whitelock.
If Barrett is the outhalf many people in New Zealand think he is, this performance will prove a valuable lesson for him. But if the Lions can recreate this defensive pressure, if he drops into the pocket, if his tactical kicking starts to malfunction, if he has to enter a test match without the necessary place-kicking preparation, well, the overwhelming odds on a blackwash will be altered.
What we can say with certainty is the next few New Zealand derbies (Chiefs v Crusaders on Friday might see the return of Cruden) will provide very interesting viewing for Andy Farrell, Rob Howley and Warren Gatland.