If it weren’t for memories, albeit fading, of Beauden Barrett scorching through every defence in world rugby between 2016 and 2017, there would, based on the last two years, be no means of knowing that he is the most imaginative player New Zealand has produced in the last two decades.
There is quite the list of players that would rank ahead of Barrett in terms of their technical application, their strategic management and ability to deliver precisely what the coach had written on the tin.
But if we trawl through the last 20 years, it’s hard to mount a convincing argument that there has been any All Black, or indeed any player anywhere in the world, who can match him for raw talent and an incredible capacity to use his basic skills to such deadly effect.
Dan Carter was the better flyhalf, more organised and more effective as a game manager, but he would be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t have the same instinctive ability as Barrett to grab the ball and pull off the impossible.
Barrett is in possession of a rare combination of skills: he has the top-end speed of a wing – and he has speed endurance – proven by the fact he holds New Zealand’s record for the dreaded shuttle running Bronco test – which allows him to still be capable of scorching moments in the 80th minute.
He’s not just quick in body, so too is he quick in mind and he sees space where others don’t and his ability to exploit it is extraordinary.
Then there is his ability to kick and chase. There have been games when everyone thought he’d madly kicked the ball to the opposition only for him to magically regather possession.
And anyone wanting to see how gifted he truly is need only scan YouTube for three personal highlights – the one-handed scoop pick-up at full pace in the first test against the British and Irish Lions; the outrageous no-look flip pass to Nehe Milner-Skudder against the Springboks in 2017 and the way he controlled the ball in the lead-up to his match-clinching try in the 2015 World Cup final.
This is a player who scored four brilliant tries in one test against the Wallabies in 2018; a player who enabled the All Blacks to score an average of 43 points in the 2016 Rugby Championship and someone who no defence in world rugby could successfully contain between 2016 and 2017.
If he was treading water in 2022, there has been a definitive sense that he’s going backwards in 2023.
Barrett was undeniably brilliant and a deserved recipient of two World Player of the Year titles and yet if you didn’t know that there is no way you would believe it based on how he played throughout 2022 and so far this year.
Things were tracking well enough through Super Rugby last year. Barrett was a key driver for the Blues as they stormed into the final only to implode once they got there.
But when he moved into the All Blacks, there was no sign of his Super Rugby form. He was expected to cement his place as the preferred No 10 but after he was a mixed bag against Ireland and then disappointing against the Boks in Mbombela, head coach Ian Foster decided to drop Barrett as his playmaker and see if Richie Mo’unga could do any better.
When Mo’unga played with enough composure and authority to suggest he was the right long-term option, Barrett re-entered the frame as a fullback.
He became the first choice in the No 15 jersey without ever doing much more than delivering security under the high ball. There were no scintillating incursions from the backfield or dramatic moments when he reminded everyone of his ability to do the impossible.
If he was treading water in 2022, there has been a definitive sense that he’s going backwards in 2023. His work for the Blues to date has been entirely unmemorable.
They have used him at No 10 and he’s looked a bit rigid and unsure and against the Chiefs in Round 6, he produced a performance that was so riddled with errors as to have even his biggest admirers a little worried.
His goal-kicking was awful – striking two conversions as if he was a 24-handicapper playing into a gale. He scored a perfectly good try – or at least he would have had he touched the ball down instead of trying to steal a few extra yards to get closer to the posts.
In doing so, he was tap-tackled and put a foot in touch and seven points were blown by a moment of madness that was not at all like Barrett.
And then there was his general indecision and refusal to back his skill set. The Blues use him to defend the backfield and every time the ball came his way he did the same thing – kicked it back and didn’t chase after it.
He kind of just seems offbeat, a little bit confused about what he’s actually going to do and that’s kind of had a ripple effect on the team.
All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina on Beauden Barrett
Blues fans were no doubt screaming at him to run, to back himself to make something happen, but it was obvious he either lacked confidence or felt compelled to stick to some pre-determined coaching objective to kick everything back.
Barrett was clearly out of sorts, and he’d be nowhere near making the All Blacks if the World Cup squad was being picked today.
As former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina observed on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown: “He [Barrett] lacks confidence.
“You don’t see that in a great player like Beauden Barrett. He kind of just seems offbeat, a little bit confused about what he’s actually going to do and that’s kind of had a ripple effect on the team.”
But of course, the World Cup squad is not being picked today, but in early August and the real question about Barrett is whether he can rediscover some more convincing version of his former self between now and then.
The doubters have already decided that he can’t: that his best days are behind him and at almost 32 it’s time to give up on him.
Foster is not likely to be in the sceptics’ camp as he has seen for himself how great players are able to brush off an unexpected bad patch and storm back into top form.
Carter did that in 2015. He was a shadow of himself throughout Super Rugby and there were calls to leave him behind for the World Cup. And then boom, he got to England, something clicked and he finished the tournament as World Player of the Year for the third time.
Foster has also seen how senior All Blacks can often be slow to find their form in World Cup year. They tend to hold something back – not intentionally perhaps – but they have it in their heads that they need to be at their best in September not March.
The was best illustrated by the All Blacks-laden Crusaders who didn’t make the 2015 Super Rugby knock-out rounds. That was only the third time in their entire history that they didn’t progress to the play-offs and in their midst were Carter, Richie McCaw, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read.
Now that the line speed is incredible across the board, Barrett can’t run his way to success as a No 10.
But perhaps what Foster will bank on is that the Blues will shift him to fullback and promote Stephen Perofeta to No 10.
“Watching him it just feels like he’s now thinking he’s a fullback,” Muiliaina said. “When you are a fullback you take a little bit more time, you are not as assertive in that playmaker role.
“[The Blues] have lost their sort of direction and I think Beauden now is our fullback. I think Beauden starts at fullback and becomes a 10 option. I think that is where he is starting to feel a bit ‘What am I doing?’”
Muliaina’s observations will have struck a chord with multiple observers as Barrett has looked wooden and stilted whenever he has played at 10 in the last 12 months.
His old failing of turning his whole body in the direction he is passing has been evident and his kicking game has lacked quality and thought.
In his best years, there wasn’t the same fixation with rush defences and so his ‘run-everything’ approach was deadly. But now that the line speed is incredible across the board, Barrett can’t run his way to success as a No 10.
Fullback looks increasingly like his natural home – the place where he can use his speed and vision to deadly effect and the sooner the Blues shift him back there the better it will be for the All Blacks.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald not only needs to shift his star man to fullback, but also tell him to not worry about the game plan or feel confined by it. Essentially, Barrett needs a licence to play what he sees, encouragement to back his instincts and rediscover that ability of his to take the ball, not think, and just run.
Because however great he’s been, Barrett needs to rebuild his confidence and provide some sort of reassurance that Foster won’t be taking an unjustifiable risk by picking him for the World Cup.