The Beauden Barrett 'sabbatical sweepstakes'
It is expected that Beauden Barrett will re-sign with the New Zealand Rugby Union in a post-2019 deal, which will include an added sabbatical clause to enable him to play overseas for a season.
The new fad for Southern Hemisphere players is to take stints in the Japan Top League where the geographical location is advantageous, as well as the reduced physical toll on the body.
However, if Barrett is interested in testing himself and growing as a player then Europe should be the only option. It is no longer ‘second-rate’ to Super Rugby, and in fact would arguably be superior with deeper competition in the Champions Cup.
With only one season to show his wares, the potential landing spot has to have the cash plus the supporting cast to challenge for European glory. That leaves a handful of clubs that present an ideal fit for the All Blacks first five-eighth.
In the Top 14, Racing 92, Stade Francais and Montpellier have all expressed interest in Barrett’s services, while Lyon is rumoured to have offered Barrett the largest salary in history at €1.5 million.
The top six French clubs in the Top 14 league are all guaranteed entry into the following season’s Champions Cup, making Montpellier and Stade Francais less attractive options for a 2019-20 sabbatical, who currently sit ninth and eighth respectively.
Racing 92 presents the most glamorous proposal – the Parisian club is in the midst of a golden era built on the back of Dan Carter’s signing and is sure to have the chequebook size to match Barrett’s desired purse.
They captured their first league title since 1990 in 2016 and have finished as runners-up twice in Europe in the last three years, going down to Leinster recently in May.
They have only gone from strength-to-strength, adding electric finisher Simon Zebo, who has been living on a seemingly insatiable diet of tries on the 4G Astroturf at the La Paris Defense Arena in his first season.
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Scotland’s star flyhalf Finn Russell is only into the first year of his three-year deal at the club, however, the addition of Barrett would be a box-office ‘duopoly’ where both stars can share the stage.
Barrett playing at fullback could co-exist with Russell, adding another lethal dose of speed to a backfield with Zebo and Teddy Thomas that is purpose-built for the lightning fast Parisian surface. It is easy to imagine points flowing in every few minutes, with any visiting side needing to be built for high-octane play to keep up.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is also rumoured to be likely to head to the club and the success of Carter’s move makes the destination an appealing one for Barrett, where league and European success is attainable, as well as a unique cultural experience.
Lyon seems to have the money but whether they have the supporting cast to go deep into the Champions Cup is another question. They are currently fourth in the Top 14 so it wouldn’t be out of the question.
A dark horse French destination is the current league leaders Clermont, who are just two years removed from a Top 14 title and one year removed from a European Cup final. The roster is stacked with firepower and they will surely qualify for the Champions Cup next year after missing out this year.
If money is not a decisive factor, there will be no other destination that holds a combination of romanticism and high title chances than Leinster.
The European superpower is not regularly active in the overseas player recruitment market, with the strongest nursery in Ireland churning out a surplus of pro talent. However, if concessions can be made to accommodate Barrett, he would play for the province he partly grew up in – having lived in Leinster when his family moved to Ireland in 1999, in what would be an idealistic return.
Leinster’s players have described their style of play is geared towards maximising unstructured opportunities. There is no better player in the game suited to unstructured transitions than Barrett, who has demonstrated his supernatural predatory instincts time and time again by scoring freakish tries against the run of play.
With Jonathan Sexton re-committing to the IRFU until 2021, Barrett would have to compromise again on wearing the No.10 shirt, however with self-imposed rest periods for Ireland’s stars, there would be plenty of times to start at 10 during Pro14 league games.
With long-term Leinster and Irish fullback Rob Kearney already facing an uncertain future, if he departs post-World Cup, there will be a club need for a 15. Barrett could provide a stopgap solution as well as bring a profile to the club offering other commercial benefits.
With a passionate supporter base, if Barrett was to land in Dublin for a year he would be hard pressed to find more fanatical rugby fans. He would be likely welcomed with adoration that would only grow if he helped the side to another European title.
The Premiership holds two possible destinations with European hopes, but perhaps won’t be able to put together an attractive compensation package given the talent they already hold. Saracens are perennial contenders with a star-laden roster, including rival Owen Farrell.
A Barrett-Farrell axis with the rest of the Saracens cast would push for late-stage Champions Cup action.
The Champions Cup has undoubtedly been Exeter’s kryptonite over the last few seasons, with the new Premiership force struggling to make headway in the competition.
With star Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg signed, sealed and delivered for 2019 the re-tooling is underway for Rob Baxter’s side.
A marquee international 10 like Barrett would offer another dynamic focal point for the attack at Sandy Park and potentially be enough to tip Exeter’s European fortunes the other way with the arrival of Hogg.
Whether there would be enough budget available to accommodate Barrett, even on a discount, is a major question, but the pairing based on aspirations and roster quality would work.
Another Premiership option that cannot be ruled out is Harlequins – the club that struck a deal with NZR with hopes of building an official relationship which would facilitate sabbaticals for NZR contracted players. The partnership hasn’t delivered any meaningful, visible achievements yet but could see some progress during the next World Cup-cycle.
If Barrett decides that the Japanese Top League can wait, it seems that the French bidders will ultimately hold court – a high-profile All Black seems to drive irrational demand in France.
There are other teams in Europe that can offer a great rugby experience, but if it must be the Top 14, Barrett should head to Paris to join Racing 92 for his best chances of silverware without sacrificing coin.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
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