World Cup Preview: New Zealand
POOL B SPOTLIGHT: The All Blacks are confident they can win an unprecedented third straight title in Japan, even if they have to shift one of the team’s star players from his favoured position to do it.
No one in 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 defences with his deft kicking.
His prowess in the number 10 jersey was the reason the Blues broke the bank to lure him away from 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 defence 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 defence was to field dual playmakers – one at flyhalf and the other at fullback – providing extra attacking options.
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‘Take the risk’
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 blew a cruciate ligament, ruling him out of the World Cup.
Hansen turned to Plan B, pushing Barrett to fullback in favour 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 No.15, to me, is absolutely ridiculous. He’s the best No.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-all 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.”
Player to watch:
Sevu Reece. The Fijian-born wing lit up Super Rugby in his debut season, scoring a competition-high 15 tries as Crusaders cruised to another title.
Aim for tournament:
“Doing something that’s never been done before and trying to win three World Cups in a row,” coach Steve Hansen.
Population: 4.9 million
Coach: Steve Hansen (New Zealand, since December 2011)
Number of registered players: 157,000
World Rugby ranking: Two (September 9, 2019)
World Cup record:
Pool matches (all times GMT):
New Zealand v South Africa
Date: September 21
New Zealand v Canada
Date: October 2
New Zealand v Namibia
Date: October 6
New Zealand v Italy
Date: October 12
Venue: Toyota City
Backs: Thomas Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Brad Weber ( Chiefs), Beauden Barrett (Blues), Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Jack Goodhue (Crusaders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes) George Bridge, (Crusaders) Rieko Ioane (Blues), Sevu Reece (Crusaders), Ben Smith (Highlanders).
Forwards: Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Liam Coltman (Highlanders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Nepo Laulala (Chiefs), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Atu Moli (Chiefs), Angus Ta’avao (Chiefs) Ofa Tuungafasi (Blues), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues), Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Luke Jacobson (Chiefs), Kieran Read (captain, Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Matt Todd (Crusaders).