Patient Barrett happy to wait for No 10 start
Could this be this week? As Beauden Barrett closes in on the inevitable first test start at No 10, he tells the Sunday Star-Times any jersey's a treasured one in the All Blacks.
Beauden Barrett has a message for his growing legion of fans calling for him to get a well-deserved first start in his specialist position for the All Blacks - don't fret it, because he certainly isn't.
Among his many attributes as one of New Zealand's most exciting young rugby players, Barrett, 23, possesses an innate patience that is rare in a professional sportsman his age. It goes hand in hand with a composure and level-headedness that is a forte of his growing rugby repertoire.
Part of it's about where he's from. Barrett grew up on the family farm in Pungarehu, Coastal Taranaki, the son of local footy legend Kevin "Smiley" Barrett. He retains a grounded, home-spun attitude that reflects the uncomplicated nature of life in rural New Zealand.
Not unlike Kiwi NBA sensation Steven Adams, Barrett doesn't sweat the small stuff, doesn't over-think things and does a pretty good job of keeping what he does as simple and pragmatic as he can. It clearly works for him.
The youngster has followed an outstanding 2013 All Blacks season, largely as an impact five-eighth off the bench, with a standout Super Rugby campaign for the Hurricanes. He's kicked superbly, unleashed his trademark attacking firepower with increasing regularity and has even upped the ante on defence - an aspect of the game he readily admits is his big work-on.
So impressive has Barrett been for the Canes, many believed he deserved to wear the No 10 jersey for last night's opening test against England at Eden Park. Given Aaron Cruden had missed much of the season with injury, the Barrett brigade felt the time was ripe for that first outing in the No 10 jersey.
Fourteen of Barrett's 16 test appearances over the last two seasons have been off the bench, where he has developed a reputation as someone able to make serious impact late in matches. His two starts (against Italy and Japan) were both at fullback, where he's also more than adept.
But Steve Hansen wasn't quite swayed to change his pecking order - just yet. He stuck with Cruden as his starter (in Dan Carter's absence), partly because the Chiefs playmaker has made such a good fist of the role, and partly, he admits a little sheepishly, because Barrett is better in the impact role.
But don't be surprised if Barrett gets his shot this series, maybe in Dunedin next Saturday, maybe in Hamilton in the series finale. Hansen needs to see that his young five-eighth can start big-time tests, and now's as good a time as any.
"Five-eighths is a difficult position to play in the biggest arena - you've got to have composure," observes Hansen. "Both the young guys we've got in this team at the moment are showing that."
Barrett is certainly not tying himself in knots over the long wait he's enduring to get his crack. That's not his style. As he sidled over at the team hotel earlier this week, he cut a distinctly relaxed figure. He may be going places pretty quickly, but he's clearly in no hurry to get there.
"I've just got to keep working hard at my game and I know if I keep playing well, and if I improve throughout the season, when the time's right to start hopefully I get the nod," he says. "But I'm not down on myself or anything. There are external expectations and a bit of hype about, but I don't expect to start. I'm just happy being in the team at this stage."
Barrett feels that wave of support behind him, and he's both flattered and grateful to have it. But he's realistic about how the All Blacks do things. "This team doesn't change things up very often. The guys who start have earned their starts and are very experienced in their positions."
As is the way in the All Blacks, Barrett is both a rival and close friend of Cruden. They push each other, and help each other at the same time. It's a hallmark of how they operate. Individual agendas are checked at the door of the team hotel.
Barrett also understands that in a funny way he's hoist by his own petard. By being so effective off the bench ("It does suit my game," he agrees), his case as a starter is compromised. Though he understands the irony, he is just rapt to contribute to the cause.
You ask if his laid-back nature helps with his role as a super-sub (remember that game-changing turn late in that huge test in Johannesburg?). "I try not to worry too much, but I do feel quite nervous sitting on the bench. It may not show, but inside me things are going a million miles an hour. It's good people don't see that in me."
What people see instead is a composed, confident and capable young man, someone proud of where he's from - he considers what he does as "repayment" for his loyal support - and focused on where he's going.
Someone who will surely wear that treasured No 10 jersey very, very soon.
Sunday Star Times