By Greg Stutchbury
TOKYO (Reuters) – Steve Hansen’s risk-and-reward strategy with the All Blacks has never been more demonstrated than it will be against Namibia in Sunday’s World Cup Pool B match with the decision to give utility back Jordie Barrett the pivotal role at flyhalf.
The 22-year-old, the youngest of the three Barrett brothers in the squad, becomes the 14th player to be named as the starting flyhalf for New Zealand in the history of the World Cup.
Hansen’s arm was twisted to an extent into naming Barrett at flyhalf, after he chose just two players — Jordie’s older brother Beauden and Richie Mo’unga — as specialists in the side and decided to rest the pair against Namibia.
Jordie Barrett is arguably the first true utility player to wear the number 10 jersey at a World Cup for New Zealand, although Jon Preston was principally a scrumhalf when he started at flyhalf against the United States and Scotland in 1991.
Luke McAlister mostly played inside centre before starting at flyhalf against Romania in 2007 while Colin Slade could play fullback and even appeared on the wing but was essentially a flyhalf at Super Rugby level.
Barrett, however, has barely played the position at all since he first came to prominence as an inside centre for provincial side Canterbury in 2016 before he was converted to fullback in his first year at the Wellington Hurricanes in 2017.
He came off the bench as fullback against Samoa later that year to make his test debut and has notched 13 test caps in total, mostly as the last line of defence although he has also played wing, most recently against Canada on Wednesday.
Barrett admitted he had not really played much at flyhalf in recent years, appearing in the position while playing club rugby in Christchurch and as cover for the Hurricanes.
Hansen, however said with their switch to having dual playmakers at flyhalf and fullback, Barrett was used to taking on the responsibility as the first receiver.
“He has been playing fullback (and) … he has been doing a lot of what we have been doing at training anyway,” Hansen told reporters. “He will be looking forward to it.”
Barrett’s youthful exuberance to play the game at a high tempo has caused some concerns for New Zealand rugby fans in the past.
A quick throw-in ending in a try to South Africa during the Springbok’s 36-34 victory in Wellington last year was seized upon by his critics as a sign of his erratic performances.
Hansen, however, said while Barrett wanted to “do everything at 100 miles an hour” he had been impressed with his composure, patience and control in his last few appearances for the All Blacks.
“He is aware of what he has to do … and been working on it,” Hansen said.
“Coming into 10 will further enhance that so it’s a win-win on both fronts (and) we’re reasonably confident he will be fine.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)