You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Comment: All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett makes rugby look easy and ball takes orders from him

The Guardian logo The Guardian 30/06/2017 Andy Bull in Wellington
Beauden Barrett of the All Blacks runs with the ball during the first Test against the British & Irish Lions: Beauden Barrett has so many talents that the All Blacks have picked him at fly-half, on the wing and at full-back. © Getty Images Beauden Barrett has so many talents that the All Blacks have picked him at fly-half, on the wing and at full-back.

A bouncing ball is a wild and unpredictable thing. Tumbling end over end it can turn one way or the other, take a sudden leap or scuttle low ahead. It can make a man look a fool in a blink of an eye. Five minutes into the first Test, Beauden Barrett kicked a grubber into Conor Murray’s shin. The ball ricocheted back the other way. Barrett spun and sprinted after it, Murray close behind him. Without breaking stride, Barrett bowed a knee, leaned down to the ground and lowered his right arm. He swept the ball up by his fingertips, gathered it to his gut, switched it into the crook of his left arm, swerved around and set off down field again, stepping out of Murray’s tackle as he went. It was the most fleeting little bit of skill, would not make his highlights reel, but it was astonishing to watch.

“Some great athletes,” wrote David Remnick, “experience a round, a play, even an entire contest, in slow motion, as if their superior speed, their gift of judgment and coordination, provides them with a more usable perception of time.” Barrett has that knack. This game comes to him as easily as walking one foot in front of the other does to the rest of us, as if catching, passing, kicking and running with the ball were the first movements he’d learned. The ball takes orders from Barrett, does every last little thing he asks of it. He has so many talents that the All Blacks have picked him at fly-half, on the wing and at full-back, which is where, in the end, he played most of the game last weekend because Ben Smith went off injured.

Which left Steve Hansen with a decision to make about where to play Barrett this weekend. Aaron Cruden, the All Blacks’ Salieri, is good enough to walk into any other international team. And if he kept Barrett at full-back, Hansen could pick both. “We had to go through the process of thinking do we make a change at 10 and play Beauden at full-back or do we make a change at wing and play Izzy Dagg at full-back,” Hansen said. “And at the end of the day we wanted Beauden to steer the ship at 10 and it became a no-brainer.” Last year, Hansen promoted Barrett into the team’s leadership group. He is the man the All Blacks are going to play around in this match, and every other one in the run-up to the next World Cup.

The last time the Lions were in New Zealand, the second Test belonged to Dan Carter. He scored 33 points, two tries, four conversions, five penalties, in one of the most impressive performances of his, or anyone else’s, career. Barrett, who spent the first three years of his All Blacks career as Carter’s apprentice, still calls him the greatest of all time.

But around New Zealand others are starting to ask whether Barrett may not be better still. He is certainly a more spectacular player, faster and more threatening with the ball in hand, but then Carter was a far better goalkicker and knew how to control a game, something Barrett is still figuring out.

Barrett watched that famous Test match on TV, back at his family home. In Maori culture, your name is the last and least important part of a formal introduction. It comes after your mountain, your river, your sea and your people. Barrett’s a Pakeha, a white New Zealander, but he, and his rugby, grew out of the patch of land his family live on, in Rahotu, near Cape Egmont on the most westerly point of the North Island. His father, Kevin Barrett, a lock and flanker, played 169 games for Taranaki, and, at the end of his career, a season for the Hurricanes before he decided that he could not handle the commute to the city. An old line about Kevin Barrett, repeated a lot lately, is that when he quit he said he was “off to breed some All Blacks”.

So far, there have been three of them. Beauden, Scott, who is on the bench for this Test, and Jordie, who made his debut in the match against Samoa just before this series. There are two other brothers, Blake and Kane. Kane played for the Auckland Blues but has been out for the last three years because he sustained a series of concussions. The five of them would play together, barefoot on the windswept lawn outside the family farmhouse. “It is what we do around here,” Kevin Barrett told me in 2015. “The coast is all rugby – and girls play netball. Kids are brought up on the back lawns. The back lawn was where our boys grew. The neighbours’ kids would come over and the boys would play Test matches out there.”

Rahotu is hard country and always has been. Just last year, one of Barrett’s neighbours shot at him with a high-powered air rifle after an argument over a tree the Barretts had cut down.

The family have been here since the 1870s, when Tom Barrett came over from Ireland to try his luck in the gold mines. He took up farming soon after and the Barretts have been working the land ever since. Kevin Barrett took his boys back to Ireland for a spell in the late 90s, to work on a dairy farm in County Meath, but they did not stick it for long. Taranaki is where they belong. “We’re born and bred here, you see, with my three brothers and three sisters,” Kevin Barrett said, “so was my father. This is my family farm. We went straight on to it after I left school.”

The rugby club was just down the end of the road. “We played for the love of it,” Kevin Barrett said. “And most of us, if not all of us, were farmers. We’d get up in the morning at half past four, five o’clock, milk the cows and then do a day’s work, and then go training. We’d train at night in those days. Same on game day. We’d finish work at 10 in the morning, get to town, have a sleep and then play footy.” But then “once the dairy factories shut down, the clubs started getting weaker. The communities got smaller. So three or four of us got together and said: ‘We need to form a coastal team.’ So the Coastal rugby club was formed in 1994.”

That was where the Barrett boys played their first organised games. Kevin would coach them there on Saturday mornings. “I sort of just taught them those skills when they were five to 10, kick both feet, pass both ways, read the game,” he said. “Run with the ball in two hands, that’s key. Then they don’t know whether you are going to pass and run. Little things like that were huge. And passing both ways, that was one of the drills we did. You teach kids these skills when they’re young and it’s just so much easier.”

If Beauden Barrett made that stoop and gather look easy, it’s because he’s been practising this stuff all his life, out back of his house with his brothers, his father watching on.

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon