Some considered Beauden Barrett at fullback a waste. Yet as the Barrett/Mo’unga combination flourishes after the Bledisloe Cup win on Saturday night it may be now seen as a masterstroke, particularly after the 36-0 victory over Australia.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year had been assigned the fullback jersey (for the opening tests of 2019). That change saw the Crusaders Richie Mo’unga assume the first-five position since the Springboks test draw in Wellington. That was a move to incorporate ‘twin pivots’ in the New Zealand lineup. Similar to how the All Blacks wished to use Damian McKenzie, before his injury appeared to halt that strategy.
Since its inception, has the move been successful? Not exactly, until Saturday against the Wallabies that is.
The paring seemed hampered in the first several games. However running out on August 17; in the Bledisloe Cup win at Eden Park confidence blossomed in the two players roles. The two playmakers appeared to harmonize, to play in both tandem and in a more complementary way. The All Blacks selectors presumed this would occur yet; to date, had not shown clear evidence.
Against Australia, behind a pack that was assertive, with outside backs that exhibited raw enthusiasm, the twin pivots could play both structured, as well as their own natural style. And if this was only a sample, then fans can look forward to more improvement from here.
Barrett/Mo’unga combination flourishes in Bledisloe Cup win
Shifting Barrett to fullback appeared to be an odd selection. Moving your best player does not make sense although, with the prospect of Super Rugby winning player Richie Mo’unga in the same team, it had its merits.
This allowed Mo’unga to be groomed predominantly as first-five. Whilst not altering his specific game at this stage of his career. While utilizing the years of experience that Barrett has in both the number 10 and 15 jerseys. Also, retaining the match direction that Barrett has exhibited for the last three years. Bringing in the relatively fresh and exciting vision of Mo’unga, seemed to be full of potential.
It looked to be a natural combination, although before Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup win, it seemed to fail after several attempts. It could have even been ‘put on the shelf’ if the selectors had not continued with their tactic.
The switch looked to some like it was forced. Like taking two quarterbacks, and asking one to wait for the running pass, before they could say ‘set’. Unnatural for most, yet with several attempts prior to the Auckland leg of the Bledisloe Cup series, the players and coaches had continued with the model. With the players gaining in confidence with each other, knowing more of how the other plays. It was an action that appeared to work best in its third attempt.
Example of Barrett/Mo’unga relationship blooms in Bledisloe Cup win
Both players starred, each from their different positions yet interlinked in a way that was concerted and fluent. Each had periods where they were pivot, and other times when in behind the line or the last line of defence. The examples were clear, and gladly for All Blacks fans, a clear advantage.
From bad to good, or at least appearing to come good.
An appraisal of how the blossoming on-field relationship between Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga could be seen as ‘improving’. In the same way that International sports teams themselves, form strong partnerships over time. Which is perfectly timed for New Zealand’s World Cup bid.
At times, the ability for Richie Mo’unga to both be the first receiver/ball runner, and then for Beauden Barrett to then appear in the line, looked balanced and natural. Each having their time in both positions, over the time that Mo’unga was on the field.
One example is from a move out of the back of the line. Here, Barrett took the ball at pace and was able to connect with left-wing George Bridge, in a movement across the face of the Australia defence. Bridge broke the line, that would lead to a well-constructed try to Aaron Smith – similar to how McKenzie may have been used. Barrett, the link-man who runs at pace, could have found his ‘happy place’ wearing 15.
🙌 Aaron Smith…and the pukana-dive to finish.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) August 18, 2019
Beau’unga connection may be finally ‘hitting its Mark’
Richie Mo’unga had moments too where he was active in directing the point of the attack. The form number 10, a good distributor and able to help turn the Wallabies on their heels when gaining territorial parity.
And in cover defence he was quick to counter-attack. Up in the first line of defence, he instantly reacted (with finger-tip ball control) to make a brilliant 40-meter run to the line that opened the All Blacks tryscoring blitz.
— SKY Sport NZ (@skysportnz) August 17, 2019
Mo’unga often set himself back to make a high kick, working with his backs. However he also proved comfortable in receiving them himself when running up-to-the-line from deep. The rotation between the twin-pivots was a confusing aspect of ‘the plan’ hatched by Steve Hansen.
Two superbly skilled attacking players, two fine defenders, used in tandem but without a pattern. No-one had a more influential kicking role, but each were of an equal threat to the edges. Using the handy chip-over-the-top, when required.
Barrett even threw in a dropkick, to show that he could bring that out when required. Mo’unga may also be a threat with le drop. The same one that Dan Carter used to great effect, in the 2015 RWC final.
Barrett/Mo’unga could be an Equal Threat at RWC
When inside the opposition 22-meter zone, option taking could be where the wealth of choices is a key weapon. With the most obvious left/right option being a natural choice, on a couple of occasions, both players were in a similar position. Smith sends the ball to the first receiver, with the dual threat of Sonny Bill Williams or Anton Lienert-Brown, effectively giving multiple passing options.
This could be a valuable set-up for quick phase ball, where the alternating drivers hold defenders. Pick and roll forwards operating in their clusters. The looming threat of both Barrett and Mo’unga set up on the same side/different sides/or, in parallel. Forcing the opposition defence into making multiple decisions. That is not considering the power of the All Blacks loose forwards, like Ardie Savea or inventive outside backs.
And while during the South African and first Australian tests, this combination wasn’t seated-in. On Saturday nights Bledisloe Cup win, the interplay and understanding began to click. An attractive brand of rugby seems more possible, provided each player stays fit. A knock to Mo’unga’s shoulder saw Barrett return to first-five and allowed his younger brother Jordie to enter the match. This appeared to reinforce the myriad of possibilities for the All Blacks.
However, with all the probabilities and many tactics available, this is just the first time that the combination has been so threatening.
If a Springbok side can mimic their gameplan on September 21 [opening Pool B match] then it comes down to application. Something the All Blacks are thorough with – even though this duo seem as much to play with flair, as they do with precision. And it will need precise actions, to take on the world in Japan.
In conclusion, one game does not make a tournament win. Even with multiple Super Rugby titles, and the promise and hopes of a nation, who is to say that this combination will work? There is no guarantee. No magic formula.
It is a potential, not a proven combination. So while the pair looked to be growing evermore in confidence. New Zealand would be weary to (as yet) bet the bank on both players. That is a question still yet to be answered.
If continued with, it maybe a masterstroke or….it may forever be the side note for the current World Champions unsuccessful defence of the Webb Ellis Cup.
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