WELLINGTON (Reuters) – All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has pretty much ended the debate over whether Richie Mo’unga would be his starting flyhalf for the Rugby Championship by backing the more experienced Beauden Barrett.
Both were named in Hansen’s Rugby Championship squad on Monday, but Mo’unga’s performances in helping the Canterbury Crusaders to their ninth Super rugby title this year have seen a groundswell of opinion for him to supplant Barrett.
Hansen, who had tried to dampen down the volume of that opinion last week, said on Monday while Mo’unga was playing well, Barrett’s proven ability at the test level would sway his decision for the opener against Australia in Sydney on Aug. 18.
“He’s (Mo’unga) played one test match and he’s got competition from the specialist five-eighth in Beauden Barrett, who’s played 64 (tests),” Hansen told reporters in Christchurch after he named the squad.
“Both of them are very good rugby players, our job is to maximise the talent we’ve got and over time you will see Richie get more test matches I’m sure.”
Hansen added that similar debate had been circulating before the previous Rugby World Cup in England when Barrett was arguably playing better than All Blacks great Dan Carter.
Carter, however, demonstrated all of his experience from more than 100 tests to guide the All Blacks to a tense 20-18 win over the Springboks in the semi-finals and then to a 34-17 victory in the final against the Wallabies.
“Everyone wanted us to drop Dan Carter,” Hansen said.
“But he had one ingredient the other blokes didn’t have and that was experience. And I think you saw that experience come out in the big moments.
“So we have to build that experience for Richie, but we have a player in Beauden who has been the world’s best player for the last two years, so we won’t be in any rush to shift him.”
Hansen added that dumped loose forward Vaea Fifita still remained in their plans for the end of season tour and next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Fifita was concussed during the test series against France in June and then struggled with his form ever since.
The rangy 26-year-old, who has principally been a blindside flanker for the All Blacks, had also spent much of the Super Rugby season playing lock for the Wellington Hurricanes.
“He is playing out of position so to speak,” Hansen said.
“If you play all your life (at lock) and then someone says ‘right, play at six’ at an even higher level than you have been playing at, it is difficult.
“And whilst we would have liked to see him do that for the Hurricanes, it is not our team to select.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)