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Beauden Barrett proves artistry at fly-half has not gone forever

The Guardian The Guardian 13/10/2016 Paul Rees

International rugby is a home again to fly-halves, 10s who are fly as in knowing and clever. The gulf between South Africa and New Zealand last weekend was graphically illustrated at stand-off where Beauden Barrett lay flat and directed the All Blacks’ heavy and light traffic astutely, while opposite him Morne Steyn stood deep and kicked.

The Springboks scored five penalties through Steyn’s boot, leading for a while in the first half, but New Zealand schemed nine tries to leave South Africa reflecting on a record home defeat before next month’s tour to Europe. Steyn had kicked all the points in the victory over Australia the week before as his side went back to what they have been most comfortable with, a slow game based on territory, but the sport’s zeitgeist has changed.

The top two sides in the world rankings, New Zealand and England, both have 10s who are able to see plays in advance rather than settle on a strategy without waiting to see if possession is recycled quickly or slowly. When Daniel Carter made himself unavailable for New Zealand after last year’s World Cup, it was assumed that it would take his successor a while to settle into the position even though Aaron Cruden and Barrett hardly lacked experience.

Cruden had the first crack but when he was injured, Barrett stepped up and has made New Zealand even better. It was not that long ago that fly-halves were seen as facilitators who had to operate in a markedly different way to their predecessors because of the way modern defences were organised. They were also required to tackle and present more of an obstacle than a speed bump.

Beauden Barrett of New Zealand during the The Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand at Growthpoint Kings Park on October 08, 2016 in Durban, South Africa. © Getty Images Beauden Barrett of New Zealand during the The Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand at Growthpoint Kings Park on October 08, 2016 in Durban, South Africa.

The likes of Barry John, Phil Bennett and Tony Ward, impish 10s dowsed in devilry, were considered obsolete as Jonny Wilkinson, all structure and sinew, pocketed the keys to No10. The romantic age was over, faded into black and white. There was no space to drift into and fly-halves became the executors of someone else’s will.

Barrett and George Ford are hardly throwbacks to John and Bennett, but neither are they Jonny-come-latelys. They are, in the grand traditions of fly-halves, the masters of opportunity. They operate in a different time to their amateur forebears but not dimension: to look at Barrett suddenly changing direction, giving a pass and looping and running through gaps is to be reminded of the all-round qualities 10s have been blessed with through the years.

Barrett has started seven Test matches this year after twice coming on as a replacement. His 118 points include seven tries, more than any other player, although Ben Smith and Israel Dagg have both reached that mark (it is worth recording that 20 players have scored tries for the All Blacks this year in their nine internationals), as his ability to create and see space has allowed him to show off his own pace as well as that of those outside him.

Ford has yet to show Barrett’s relish for a break and England as a team are not as advanced as the All Blacks, but the one match Eddie Jones left him out of, the first Test in Australia in the summer, convinced the national head coach that without Ford at 10 his side’s attacking game suffered without a corresponding improvement in defence. And so he hooked Luther Burrell after just 29 minutes, moving Owen Farrell back to 12 and bringing on Ford. England did not look back in the series.

Ford does not seem to be regarded as a contender for the Lions in New Zealand in the summer with Jonathan Sexton, the Test fly-half on the tour to Australia in 2013, and Wales’s Dan Biggar deemed to be ahead of him. Nothing should have been decided yet and Biggar especially will have it all to prove in the November internationals and the Six Nations.

He was Wales’s standout player in the World Cup, not least for his ability under the high ball, but like Steyn he prefers to stand deep and kick. Wales’s attempts to increase their tempo last season brought mixed results, not least because they lacked an outside-half who was prepared to stand flat. When they did for an hour in the opening championship game against Ireland in Dublin last February, Rhys Priestland replacing the injured Biggar, they looked more dangerous but there were times when they passed when they should have kicked.

Wales need to find balance at outside-half, scanning rather than determining in advance and mixing up play, while it is also a big year for Sexton and Ireland who have had a highly structured approach in the Joe Schmidt years. Sexton with the Lions in Australia was a different, more reactive player and if last weekend was a yardstick, next year’s series is highly unlikely to be won with the boot.

South Africa’s new head coach Allister Coetzee started the year with Pat Lambie as his 10 in place of the injured Handre Pollard, quickly dumping him for Elton Jantjies, an attacking fly-half who had helped the Lions reach the Super Rugby final. Coetzee proclaimed he wanted to make his side more offensive, but opted for Steyn after a 41-13 defeat to New Zealand in Christchurch. They will arrive in Europe unsure about their direction of travel.

Australia’s heavy defeat to New Zealand prompted their head coach, Michael Cheika, to dust down Quade Cooper, a maverick 10 who has curbed some of his natural instincts so far. The Wallabies, the Springboks and Argentina will find comfort on their European tour in meeting opponents largely of similar quality, and none with the attacking menace of the All Blacks.

England should be an exception, if they have enough fit players to start the series. Farrell has yet to play this season, and while he would be at 12, Ford would have to assume the kicking duties, something he has not always been comfortable with in the past. While Ford has the ability to bounce back after a poor performance, he often struggles to right the ship when it goes off course during a match.

Barrett is not a goal-kicker in the mould of Steyn or Wilkinson, but for the moment that does not bother the All Blacks. Tries are their business.

Springbok strife

South Africa’s meeting of coaches next week to discuss the way forward for the professional game in the country is timely. Last weekend’s record home defeat by New Zealand has shown that the problems facing the Springboks go beyond the national head coach.

At the start of the year, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa made up the top three in the world rankings after a World Cup in which Europe failed to provide a semi-finalist. England, eighth then, have risen to second after Eddie Jones’s 100% start.

The Wallabies and the Springboks are third and fourth respectively, but with European tours to come next month, at least one of them may find themselves in the second band of seeds in next May’s World Cup group draw. The once mighty are falling.

South Africa’s captain Adriaan Strauss walks on the touchline after being substituted during the South Africa’s heavy defeat to New Zealand © Provided by Guardian News South Africa’s captain Adriaan Strauss walks on the touchline after being substituted during the South Africa’s heavy defeat to New Zealand

The Cape Town meeting (or indaba) is being facilitated by Brendan Venter, the former South Africa centre who was the influence behind the rise of Saracens from also-rans to Premiership and European champions. Super Rugby coaches will attend, along with the Springbok management team and the players’ association. The agenda will include coming up with plans to ensure South Africa “remains a leading rugby nation”.

Jake White, the coach who led South Africa to the 2007 World Cup, the last time they reached the final, will not be present as he plots Montpellier’s campaign in the European Champions Cup; neither will his successor, Peter de Villiers, who is working in Namibia.

“I cannot see the indaba making any difference,” said White. “Things have been coming for a while now, the result of decisions made 10 years ago, and the question that has to be asked by those running the game is whether they are happy to be consistently among the top five in the world or if they want to be No1.

“If it is the latter and you allow players to go overseas to play, it does not fit with the mission. Every decision taken should be with getting to No1 in the world in mind and anything that does not improve the Springboks should not be implemented.”

Talking about next month’s tour to Europe, he went on: “There is not a magic wand you can wave to make everything right in four weeks otherwise everyone would be doing it. The players are giving their all and I feel sorry for everyone involved because it cannot be any fun: they are living their dream but it has become a nightmare.”

Another former South Africa coach, Nick Mallett, believes the Rugby Championship has become a two-division tournament – New Zealand and the rest. “It is like the difference between night and day,” he said. “We are around the same standard as Argentina and Australia, B division sides.

“New Zealand rugby has the template South Africa needs to follow. A lot of what we saw last Saturday should be squarely blamed on our structures and our administrators because we have not got that professional a setup.

“In New Zealand the All Blacks are always placed first. The New Zealand Rugby Union contracts their Super Rugby players and places them in the franchises. Here, the every team signs its own players and coach. They have a centralised system run for the benefit of New Zealand rugby, we have a system that benefits our provinces and not the national side, which should actually be the main priority, and we have 14 unions when we can only afford six.

“We always talk about the abundance of talent we have, but a lot of youngsters are going overseas because of the weak rand. We have to keep those players in the country by reducing the number of unions and making franchises professional as they have done in England and France. That will allow businesses to run our unions and not people politically voted into position.”

It sounds a lot like what was said in Wales as they, slowly at first, declined from the heights of the 1970s.

Irish set sights on London return

London Irish team-mates Scott Steele (left) and James Marshall (right) compete for a high ball at the Madejski Stadium © Provided by Guardian News London Irish team-mates Scott Steele (left) and James Marshall (right) compete for a high ball at the Madejski Stadium

Venter’s old club London Irish hope to move out of the Madejski Stadium and return to the west of London by the end of the decade.

They have put in an application to play at Brentford FC’s planned new 20,000-seater stadium at Lionel Road in Kew which is expected to be ready by the start of the 2019-20 season. Planning permission has been granted for football and work is expected to start next year.

“Further to our briefing note of 15 August 2016 regarding our initial discussions with the London Borough of Hounslow to explore the potential for rugby to be played at the new Brentford Community Stadium, London Irish has now submitted a formal Section 73 application to ascertain whether a rugby use of the stadium is possible,” said the club in a statement. “We will continue to keep supporters and stakeholders updated with any further developments.”

Irish have played in Reading since 2000 and are contracted to remain there for another nine years, although they do have a break clause. They came to rattle around the ground in their latter years in the Premiership, and while they have continued to play there in the Championship, one side is closed to save costs.

What has yet to be revealed is whether Irish will be tenants, as they are at the Madejski Stadium, or partners, which would allow them some commercial benefit from playing at the new ground. The Premiership this season does not have one club who rents a football ground, landlords all apart from Newcastle whose home is owned by a university.

Irish have made a winning start in the Championship, but if they are to return to the Premiership and thrive, they will need the power to capitalise on where they play.

Wales may change summer destination

Wales’s tour to Tonga and Samoa next summer may be switched to New Zealand, where the Lions will be, because of concerns about facilities and medical cover.

World Rugby is sending a team to the two countries – Wales were originally also meant to play Fiji but the fixture has been dropped – on a fact-finding mission and a decision will be made by the end of the month.

Samoa is the lesser concern – New Zealand played in Apia in July last year – but provision has been made for the game against Tonga to be staged in Auckland where support for the “home” side would be considerable. In the 2011 World Cup, Tonga were the best supported team after the New Zealand hosts with their fans packing out airports to welcome the side.

When Wales first went to the South Seas back in 1986, they played Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa. They had to contend with the heat as well as tough-tackling opponents.

The Wales captain, David Pickering, suffered a kick to the head against Fiji and was flown home where he had, in those pre-concussion protocol days, a brain scan and was told to rest for four months. The Tonga game erupted in a mass punch-up which left the wing Adrian Hadley needing to be stretchered off. “Disgraceful” was a word reached for by the tourists.

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