All Blacks fans love to romanticise the upside of the many X-factor backs that call New Zealand home. The talent is undeniable and inevitably leads to major selection debates. Ideally, these would be concluded before a Rugby World Cup.
As it stands, Mark Telea, Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett have earned the selectors’ trust as the premier back three.
That’s a well-educated bet. Telea and Jordan have been exceptional in Super Rugby Pacific and Telea especially has carried that form into the international season.
Jordan is a player with world-class vision and in The Rugby Championship matchup against the Springboks showed just how impactful he can be within this current All Blacks system. Operating on the wing, he has opportunities to spy half gaps and inject himself into the game with the magical pace and skillset we know he possesses.
Ian Foster has given him that license and when the game opens up, the 25-year-old will punish any defence.
But at the international level, a player’s biggest strength is only as relevant as their biggest weakness.
With calls to relocate Jordan to his familiar fullback role, relegating Beauden Barrett to the bench or out of the match-day 23 entirely, it’s important to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of each option.
The vantage point Jordan enjoys as a fullback is naturally more advantageous than the wing when it comes to reading the game and spying those opportunities that can tear defences apart. But within the context of the All Blacks’ systems on both attack and defence, there are so many more elements to consider.
Beauden Barrett is a veteran of the game. Along with Aaron Smith, the 32-year-old is by far the oldest and most experienced player in the New Zealand backline.
That experience comes into its own in one crucial area: defence.
Ian Foster has referenced Barrett’s communication as a fullback on many occasions, signalling it as crucial to the integrity and organisation of the defensive line.
“I know as a 10, playing fullback how much I rely on outside comms,” Barrett told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod during The Rugby Championship.
“The defensive part of the game in the backfield, it’s very important. Often sitting at home in front of the TV, you wouldn’t see us and the amount of running we’re doing, covering space.
“You want to enable your wingers and your frontline, whether it’s 13 guys or 12 guys depending on your system, 14 guys in some cases, you want to give them the most confidence to get up and put pressure on that line speed.
“The best way to do that is having numbers, so you’re not having to hold and push.
“So, giving them comms, the commitment to get up and put a shot on and ultimately limit the time on the ball that the opposition have, that’s where we as communicators, 10 and 15 usually, that’s just our role defensively.”
Only experience can inform that communication and if Barrett were to be replaced, the absence of that experience would put the defensive structure under much more pressure.
It’s a huge reason why Shaun Stevenson was never in the running for the All Blacks fullback role.
Another attribute Barrett brings is his kicking game – yes, it was horrible in the second half against France. But, to be fair to the fullback, there was no space to kick into.
In the first half of the World Cup’s opening match, Barrett and Richie Mo’unga balanced their kicking game well to stretch the French backfield, the variety of kicks saw them find open space in close and find the touchline for handy gains in territory.
When the second period rolled around, France were far more clinical around the breakdown and in contact, meaning the All Blacks were often kicking as a result of lack of front-foot ball rather than capitalising on spaces they had created through their running game.
The difference was evident, as France’s backfield maintained their structure and comfortably covered Barrett’s efforts off the boot.
The former World Player of the Year found himself receiving French clearances, reading the defence and finding no gaps, only to kick and hope as that was the option most aligned with New Zealand’s new attacking identity and perhaps more importantly, would avoid the chance of getting isolated.
Lack of support is a major issue for the All Blacks. Against France, Mark Telea’s efforts to make extra meters were often only rewarded with the surrendering of possession as cleaners were late to assist the elusive runner. You can’t blame Barrett for playing what might then be considered the safer option in those instances.
The amount of attacking influence Barrett had in the France Test was also criticised, but without his brother Jordie in the lineup, Beauden was required to step in at second receiver to facilitate the kicking game. When facing a rushed defence, New Zealand like to invite the defensive line up past the first receiver in order to create the space in behind, as they did in the opening try of the match courtesy of a well-executed cross-field kick from their secondary playmaker.
Will Jordan has not shown the ability to deliver the kicking game that the All Blacks need, but given the right platform, Barrett has. Just look at the Mt Smart Test.
Jordan’s only decent run at fullback came in the second Bledisloe test in Dunedin, where he handed the vast majority of the kicking duel duties to Damian Mckenzie.
Only McKenzie has a chance to challenge for the 15 jersey. As we’ve seen with Mo’unga and Barrett, it takes time to build a relationship in a dual-playmaker system, it’s likely to be too risky to start a new paring now.
While some pairings connect seamlessly, McKenzie’s erratic and unpredictable running game is simultaneously what makes him great and what makes him a difficult player to find a rhythm with.
His talent and form should have him in the 23, but putting him in at 15 right now is too much of a risk to the backline’s cohesion.
Elsewhere in the backline, Aaron Smith’s accuracy is second to none but as we see with France and Ireland, a halfback who threatens around the ruck can slow a defensive line down and New Zealand now have a halfback who does just that.
Cam Roigard has earned the 21 jersey – or the 22 jersey if the All Blacks are to take their most pressing issues seriously and follow the trend with a 6-2 split.
With the aforementioned status of his experience in the backline and his skillset, Aaron Smith should be untouchable.
Roigard must join Mckenzie and Leicester Fainga’anuku as impact players who can break a game open in the final minutes – provided they have that elusive platform.2023-09-20T08:14:18Z dg43tfdfdgfd