The night Beaudenism became a religion
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Right now, one player more than ever symbolises the exciting brand of rugby that the All Blacks are known for.
Beauden Barrett stands head and shoulders above all others in the first five position, but it hasn’t always been that way in his storied 61 test career.
The dawn of the latest Barrett era took many by surprise. It seems as if no established player has had such a rapid ‘second’ ascension and change of public perception as much as he’s had in the last year and a half.
It’s easy to forget that last June it was Aaron Cruden who was the front-runner to take the All Blacks No.10 jersey forward to the next World Cup. Cruden, the man who had left the Hurricanes and gone to the Chiefs, opening the door for Barrett to play Super Rugby. Cruden, the regular starter when Carter was out injured, leaving Barrett’s first rise to public attention in a niche role: a ‘super-sub’ impact player.
For a while there it seemed as though Barrett might be the archetype replacement, destined to play the vast majority of his test career off the bench. It certainly appeared that way for the first few years – since his All Blacks debut in 2012 Barrett started just two of his first 21 tests.
However, that all changed after one crazy month in 2016.
Race for the throne
The 2015 Rugby World Cup was the end of an era for New Zealand rugby. The victory was a swansong for a number of generational players, including Dan Carter. He sailed off for a retirement pay-day in the France, leaving a three horse race for the 10 jersey.
Cruden was the short favourite to become ‘the guy’ despite missing World Cup selection, with Barrett and Lima Sopoaga well and truly in the picture as contenders. Cruden’s resume was still the pick of the bunch – he had taken the Chiefs franchise to back-to-back Super Rugby titles and had started 23 tests.
To start 2016, the Chiefs had found a two-headed monster in Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie that set Super Rugby alight. The calm, experienced Cruden was the perfect foil for the wild pinball machine play of McKenzie.
Although Cruden wore the No.10 jersey, both players shared first receiver duties – freeing up the other to float around and pop-up where they desired. The Chiefs were scoring points by the bucket loads and led the competition heading into the June test series break. Naturally, Cruden’s form gave him the first shot at the All Blacks No.10 jersey.
The night Beaudenism became a religion
Following the unconvincing 39-21 win over Wales in the first test in Auckland, the stage was set for something to happen. The All Blacks weren’t their usual dominant outfit. It didn’t seem like things were clicking and there was a certain uneasiness in the air around Kiwi fans.
The second test would change the future path of New Zealand rugby and can be pinpointed as the beginning of Barrett’s stranglehold on the first five position.
After 32 minutes, Cruden was forced from the field with a neck injury. A stalemate was unfolding – after 50 minutes at 10-all the All Blacks were struggling to put away Wales.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Barrett would be the spark, breaking two tackles on halfway, fending away the first defender and running through a weak arm tackle before sending Ben Smith down the right touchline untouched.
Three minutes later, attacking the Welsh line, Barrett cut back past Welsh centre Davies, fended another and went over to score in the midst of a third tackle.
Barrett’s five-minute cameo sparked a fury of All Blacks points, burying the Welsh 36-10 before a late comeback made the scoreline more respectable.
That night began the turning of the tide, building momentum towards Barrett surpassing Cruden in the pecking order. The next month of Super Rugby would confirm that.
The end of the drought
After the June test break the Chiefs, who were so dominant all year long, had a momentary lapse in form at the last hurdle in the regular season. This setting off a chain of events which would see them lose the New Zealand conference, which crucially gave Barrett’s Hurricanes home ground advantage for the 2016 playoffs.
Barrett would be instrumental in the 25-9 dismantling of the Chiefs in the home semi-final, setting up one try with a miraculous chip and chase and scoring an intercept. His out-of-hand kicking in wet conditions in the final led the Hurricanes to their first ever Super Rugby title, with Barrett scoring the decisive and only second-half try against the Lions.
Barrett’s stocks were at an all-time high, leading to the ‘easy decision’ by Steve Hansen to start Barrett over Cruden in the first Bledisloe test in Sydney. Barrett rewarded Hansen’s decision with a man-of-the-match performance.
Barrett-mania would go into overdrive after a Rugby Championship in which his hot form continued – seven try assists, four tries, the most run metres and most defenders beaten. A successful end of year tour followed before the cherry on top – World Rugby naming Barrett the world’s best player in 2016.
Barrett was 25-years-old and had made the quantum leap to world’s best player – all in a six-month stretch.
Fork in the road
Barrett announced mid-way through the 2016 Rugby Championship he had re-signed with the Hurricanes and NZR on a three-year deal extending his stay until 2019.
Shortly after, Cruden announced in January of 2017 he had signed a record three-year deal with Montpellier. A dramatic, sharp and irreversible change of paths was complete – Cruden’s move offshore would end any chance of surpassing Barrett again.
It seems it can all be traced back to the night where Cruden’s injury against Wales as a turning point. If that never happened, is Barrett starting now? If Cruden won his third title with the Chiefs, does he retain his starting spot?
It was this series of improbable coincidences that aligned for Barrett’s opportunity to appear so quickly, and he seized it with both hands. While it’s true that Cruden opened the door for Barrett, it’s equally so that Barrett shut the door on Cruden behind him.