One remark in the comments section of a newspaper summed it up: ‘2016 was Beauden Barrett’s year. We were all just living it.’
The highlight reels of 2016 are evidence of one of the greatest individual seasons in modern rugby. And yet, a new force rising fast in the south of New Zealand might mean that Beauden Barrett has a fight on his hands to retain his position for the 2019 World Cup.
Richie Mo’unga has the potential to be that good. It is a big call but for those who doubt his big match temperament, watch the final of the 2016 National Provincial Championship and Mo’unga’s tour de force performance for Canterbury. In that game, he scored two tries and set up three more.
He has speed, vision, incredible balance and lightning feet, honed from national level touch rugby, which means he hits lines, finds gaps and runs angles that flummox defences. He has an excellent kicking game, with long punts and the instinctive grubbers and chips of the best fly-halves. When he debuted for Canterbury as a nervous 19-year-old, sideline commentator and former All Black Jeff Wilson reported Canterbury coach Scott Robertson’s description of Mo’unga, who said he was excited to introduce the new talent and compared him to the brilliant hot-stepping New Zealand rugby league player Benji Marshall.
The 22-year-old scored 179 points in his debut season in Super Rugby, impressing commentators with his level-headed maturity stepping into Dan Carter’s golden boots at fly-half. A bare statistical comparison of Mo’unga and Barrett’s Super 18 season is revealing. The New Zealand Under-20 international finished fifth in points behind Barrett (223), who had the benefit of two more games in the finals.
His goal-kicking, like Barrett’s, lacked consistency with both finishing around the 70% success rate. Barrett easily outstripped Mo’unga in tries (nine compared to five) and try assists (nine to two) but when you look at the number of clean breaks and defenders beaten, things get a touch surprising.
The Christchurch native topped Barrett in both categories, with 23 clean breaks to the 25-year-old’s 18 and 41 defenders beaten to Barrett’s surprisingly low 26. And remember Barrett played two more games than Mo’unga.
Both players were guilty of slipping off tackles, with the Crusaders man successfully completing just 75% and Barrett 80.6%. But remember that this was Mo’unga’s first season of Super Rugby and that we are comparing his season with one of the greatest in modern rugby.
Since that time, Mo’unga has worked hard on his weaknesses and lifted his kicking success rate to 84.4% and his tackle completion rate to 81.9% in the National Provincial Championship. He was selected for the Barbarians’ northern tour of Europe and his growing big match experience showed as he returned to the ITM Cup and dominated the finals.
When asked about players he admires, Mo’unga nominated Aaron Cruden and Barrett, noting that he is a similar size to Cruden. However, his game is different from the two All Black incumbents. There’s a real confidence, almost a swagger about his game that brings back memories of the flair of All Black Carlos Spencer but the steel and focus in Mo’unga’s eyes contrasts with the cheek of Spencer’s.
He is ambitious and very much his own man. As a 14-year-old, he took advantage of his parents vacation and got traditional Tongan and Samoan tattoos across his chest and lower leg. Apparently, one of Mo’unga’s pre-game rituals is to ‘sit on the toilet and make myself spew up a bit.’ He does this so he feels as light as possible at kick-off. This is a player who is unafraid to do the unusual to succeed.
But why replace Barrett? He is a huge attacking force, but when defences are tight and there is not much open play or room to manoeuvre, he struggles to operate in the tighter spaces. Mo’unga’s balance and footwork are ideal for this type of scenario, which may occur in the first halves of the final stages of the World Cup.
This is not an argument for replacing Barrett per se, but perhaps moving him to fullback where he has more space and can rove and insert his instinctive brilliance at will should be considered. This idea will no doubt provide tasty troll tucker. So you move the world’s best fly-half to replace the world’s best fullback in Ben Smith? Lunacy!
Fullback Smith could be moved to the wing and interchange with Barrett, who he has a brilliant Jedi-like understanding with. A backline with Mo’unga, Barrett and Smith all acting as playmakers would be nigh to impossible to stop.
In 2017 we will be able to witness Mo’unga’s ever-evolving game and if his rise is noticed and acknowledged by the national selectors.
There’s somebody at the door for you, Mr Hansen.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
Statistics used in this article came from nzherald.co.nz.