WELLINGTON – The All Blacks are confident they can win an unprecedented third straight Rugby World Cup in Japan, even if they have to shift one of the team’s star players from his favored position to do it.
No one on the current New Zealand squad can match the individual accolades heaped upon Beauden Barrett, a two-time World Rugby player of the year.
Barrett, 28, earned his awards for excelling at flyhalf, coordinating the All Blacks in attack and splitting opposition defenses with his deft kicking.
His prowess in the No. 10 jersey was the reason the Auckland Blues broke the bank to lure him away from the Wellington Hurricanes for the 2020 Super Rugby season.
However, the All Blacks believe the key to winning their third consecutive World Cup, and fourth overall, is moving Barrett to fullback and handing flyhalf duties to Richie Mo’unga, long seen as his understudy.
The genesis of the decision lies in the British and Irish Lions tour of 2017, when the visitors employed a rush defense to put the New Zealand backs under pressure.
It left Barrett at times looking rattled and forced uncharacteristic errors as the series ended in a draw.
Since then, other opponents have adopted the same strategy and coach Steve Hansen acknowledged ahead of this year’s Rugby Championship that it was an issue for the world champions.
“Hopefully we can show some big improvement in the decision-making under line speed, which is an area of the game that we believe everyone is going to chuck at us,” he said.
“The better we get at it, the better result we’re going to get for ourselves.”
Hansen’s plan to counter a rush defense was to field dual playmakers — one at flyhalf and the other at fullback — providing extra attacking options.
Barrett initially stayed as pivot, with Damien McKenzie at fullback.
The experiment produced mixed results in late 2018 before it was abruptly halted when McKenzie tore a cruciate ligament, ruling him out of the World Cup.
Hansen turned to Plan B, pushing Barrett to fullback in favor of Mo’unga at flyhalf.
Barrett filled in as fullback on a couple of occasions early in his test career and Hansen said he gave the player no choice about returning to 15.
“I didn’t ask him his opinion . . . when I said ‘you’re playing fullback’, he said ‘yep no worries.’ That’s about how it went,” he said.
Playing a prized asset such as Barrett out of position has raised eyebrows, particularly since it forces the highly respected Ben Smith — a World Cup winner at fullback in 2015 — onto the wing.
“Putting Beauden Barrett at 15, to me, is absolutely ridiculous. He’s the best 10 in the world,” Australian legend David Campese said during the Rugby Championship.
“I know what they’re trying to do . . . but to drop Ben Smith . . . (he is) one of the best fullbacks in the world and has been for many years.”
The Mo’unga-Barrett pairing made a mixed debut in a 16-16 draw with South Africa, followed by a 47-26 mauling by Australia in Perth.
They finally clicked in a 36-0 win over the Wallabies in Auckland and Hansen will hope they can maintain that form during the big matches in Japan.
The coach is moving on after the tournament and anything less than an All Blacks’ win in Japan will tarnish a legacy that includes victory in the 2015 tournament.
But Hansen has shown no nerves about tinkering with the All Blacks’ backline so close to rugby’s global showpiece, expressing confidence that Barrett and Mo’unga will successfully adapt to his vision and get the job done.
“At some point, you want all your good players on the park. Both of them are world class,” he said.
“I’ve often said if the reward’s worth the risk, then take the risk.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5