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"Winning is not enough for us" – Beauden Barrett is coming for England (and the world)

Rugby is his religion – and Beauden Barrett is ready to take England to church. Ben Winstanley catches up with the All Blacks' fly-half and finds out what it takes to become two-time World Rugby Player of the Year

After the last of his 167 appearances for Taranaki Rugby Club, Kevin Barrett was asked what he planned to do with his retirement from the game he dearly loved.

His answer was short but sweet: “I’m gonna go breed some All Blacks.”

Throwaway line or hint to his wife Robyn, fast forward to 9 June 2018 and I wonder if ‘Smiley’ (as Barrett Snr is affectionately known to New Zealand rugby fans) had those words in his mind as three of his sons stepped onto the turf of Eden Park and made history. For the first time ever, three siblings started the same game for the All Blacks – leading the team to a 52-11 victory over a resurgent France side, with big brother Beauden on the score sheet. For a nation that treats rugger as religion, to have such a family presence in the world’s best team is a barely conceivable feat. For the Barretts? It’s just in the blood.

There are eight Barrett children in total. All Blacks Beauden, Jordie and Scott; club rugby pros Kane and Blake; and sporty sisters Jenna, Zara and Ella. They grew up on the family dairy farm in a small parcel of land between Pungarehu and Rahotu, around 30 minutes south of New Plymouth on the North Island. It was an outdoorsy childhood – no iPads or Playstations, just green grass and plenty of open space to get stuck into sport.

Under the shadow of Mount Taranaki, the namesake of their father’s team, the kids would run around, play tag rugby and hours of cricket. They weren’t to know what the future held – the All Blacks were never a team vastly populated by boys from the provinces, but they certainly wouldn’t have predicted that the skinniest, scrawniest kid playing on the lawn back then would go on to be awarded World Rugby Player of the Year not once, but twice in succession. But what Beauden Barrett, this month’s front cover star, lacked in physique in his younger years, he made up for in application.

“I was never the talented one,” the fly-half is quick to tell me. “I’m the second eldest of the family, but my big brother Kane was always leading the way. He was much bigger than me – a physical loose forward who played for New Zealand Secondary Schools two years in a row. I was always looking up to him.

I can’t really go to one game where I’ve nailed everything

Amazing to think now, but Beauden never made that secondary schools team. As a youngster he was a lithe, agile player, but his size left him too exposed to the much bigger and physical islanders who dominated the starting line-ups at that age.

“Growing up here as a New Zealand European, or young white boy to put it frankly, often you can be disheartened playing at schoolboy level when there are big island boys and Nadi boys running around.

“You have to find a point of difference somewhere. How I did that was working on my skills and fitness, because I’m not going to be able to simply run through people.”

His was a patient journey to the pinnacle of rugby. Adolescence played its part in filling out Barrett’s slight frame, but those early days of finding a solution to tougher opposition gave the budding player a unique rugby mindset.

You see, Beauden Barrett is not nearly as exuberant (or big) as most of his team mates, but he is a genius on the pitch.

His game is far more calculated than the average fly-half – combining the roundedness of Jonny Wilkinson with the offensive wit of All Blacks legend Dan Carter. It starts and ends with a Matrix-like reading of every second of the 80 minutes – deft anticipation and a 3D awareness of his surrounds – and is signposted by fierce acceleration, eye-of-a-needle passing, and the weaponisation of the cross-field kick.

Fly-halfs were once mercurial figures; deadly from the spotkick, enablers of the more assertive backs and chief playmakers. Barrett, however, is both New Zealand’s loaded gun and its deadliest bullet.

Let me put it this way: when he hangs up his boots in however many years, there is a very real chance the All Black will be considered the greatest fly-half to have ever played the game: he’s that good. Of course, don’t expect to hear anything of the sort from the man himself.

What’s your best performance in an All Black shirt, Beauden? “Gosh, I can’t really go to one game where I’ve nailed everything.”

What was it like making history with your brothers? “That was a very exciting day.”

What ambitions do you have left in the game? “One thing that drives me as a player is you’re only as good as your last game. It’s like a game of golf – you may be good at driving one day but your putting might slip. There’s always plenty to work on in my game.”

Beauden, mate, it sounds like you’re being a bit humble…. “Look, that’s the way we are here in the land we live in!”

You can always take the easy option in life, or you can work hard for something

If it reads like Barrett’s humility makes him a tough nut to crack, jinxing around the questions like opposing players on the pitch, that isn’t exactly the case. He’s warm hearted, disarmingly friendly and courteous – the kind of guy that would buy you a beer and sit there with his protein shake perfectly content shooting the breeze. He’s a rugby guy and a New Zealander, so light ribbing and good chat is par the course. But, as with the greatest athletes on the planet, there’s also a brilliance emanating from his demeanour – that certain unplaceable quality that signals someone as destined for bigger things – to remind you that you’re not necessarily talking to the Average Joe.

But superstardom doesn’t suit the profile of the son of grafters, not least when your mum would pick up your bags from school and tell you to run the 3.5km home… barefoot.

“Yeah, she did used to do that! But my parents never had to push us as kids. You know when parents really push and you can see on the kid’s face they’re not enjoying it? It was never like that for me.

“You can always take the easy option in life, or you can work hard for something. Often Mum was the difference when it came to making that choice.”

Rural life may have been the perfect practice ground for a life in sport, but the lack of professional rugby when father Kevin was at the top of his game meant that he had to work the farm in the morning, tend to the cows, and then head off to training in the afternoon.

Mother, Robyn, was chief child herder (there were eight of them running around the place, after all, not counting the neighbouring children and cousins who would often be involved in whatever sport was taking place on the lawn), as well as farm hand, cook and disciplinarian.

“They were a great team,” Beauden puts it simply. “It was infectious because they really lead by example. They encouraged us to get out there and practice or go for a run or study. You didn’t talk back, you just went and did it. That was the Barrett way, you just got on with it.”

The value of hard work has never left him since. But, like all kids from strong families, the wonderful upbringing he received has taken on new resonance in adulthood. He’s full of admiration for what his parents achieved.

“We didn’t realise back then how difficult it must have been. We just thought, ‘Oh, Dad’s off again. He’s either going to the cow shed or going to training, maybe Wellington for a few days.’ It was just how things were.”

Of course, the professionalism of rugby has come on no end in the years since Kevin retired and Beauden rose to the pinnacle of the sport. But he’s more than just the leading light of New Zealand rugby: he’s on the cusp of greatness.

In late August, Barrett conducted a one-man demolition job of fierce trans-Tasman rivals Australia in the Bledisloe Cup – a performance that not only landed him in the history books, but led to rugby pundits stating Barrett had surpassed Dan Carter.

Chris Rattue, New Zealand Herald rugby writer didn’t hold back: “Not to denigrate Carter, but it shows that no matter how great a player is, there is always someone who might be even better out there.

“Carter was the king of the goal kicks, restarts, composure, manipulating a game, of subtle moves that could create a lot [...] but he was also a bit of a hack, compared to what Barrett is doing, which isn’t his fault. It’s just that Flying Beauden Barrett is off-the-charts good.”

Now, now, armchair rugby fans and Carter fanboys – there are some meaty stats to back up Rattue’s bold statement.

For starters, Barrett took half as many Tests as Dan Carter to get to a joint-record 25 tries from the fly-half position – he needed just 50 to get to that number. He’s already 12th in New Zealand’s all-time try scorers list. And in that 40-12 drubbing of Australia, he became the only fly-half in history to score four tries in a single Test match.

The scary thing? He’s only 27, with room to grow thanks to his (at times) indifferent spotkicking – something the British & Irish Lions benefited from during their 2017 Tour.

Whether you concur with Rattue or are cautiously waiting for Barrett’s performance in next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, the bit that is most concerning for opposing teams is that Barrett’s ability to get over the try line isn’t necessarily the strongest quality in his game.

Good rugby players, just like the stars of its sporting relative football, seem to buy themselves more time on the ball than other players. Barrett appears to carry Bernard’s Watch in his pocket – ready at any moment to freeze time before making the correct decision on how to proceed.

“Often when I’m playing well, there’s a place I get to that I call ‘light, bright and clear’. That’s when I’m playing my best footie: when I’m running on instinct, my mind and my body are clear and I can just enjoy playing. That’s where I aim to get each game.”

It may not be Bernard’s Watch, but these days you will find the fly-half sporting one of Tudor’s classic timepieces as part of his new role as brand ambassador. It’s a foreign environment for a farmer’s son, but Barrett’s burgeoning success has made him cherry ripe for the global stage – whether he’s ready for the big time or not.

That’s why you’ll find his face alongside musical titan Lady Gaga and one-man marketing god (and alright footballer) David Beckham across Tudor’s billboard campaigns.

It’s worth pointing out the Swiss brand has made the decision to endorse the entire All Blacks team, but it’s Barrett’s handsome features that dominate much of the marketing material. You’ll be glad to know it hasn’t gone to his head quite yet.

We’re on the pursuit of excellence and that never fails to motivate us

“I’ve always been a huge fan of David Beckham, I’m not going to lie. To be ambassador for Tudor alongside him is pretty cool. Have I always been a watch person? Look, growing up on a farm I’ve lived off hand-me-downs. I was never really lucky enough to have a watch. So I’m very grateful to Tudor and the opportunities it’s given me.

“It’s not a young brand, it’s been around for a long time. They’ve obviously just reintroduced themselves back to the local market and have a few new things on the go. It’s an exciting relationship to be a part of. So, yeah, I’m a watch person now – I can say that. I have a few pieces, and really love them… I’ve come way up in a sense!”

As for the possibilities of seeing Barrett team up with Golden Balls himself for Tudor: “There could be something interesting in the pipeline happening soon, that’s all I can say.”

If we’re honest, though, England rugby fans aren’t too worried about what’s on Barrett’s wrist just at this moment. With the Autumn Internationals nearly upon us, they’re far more concerned with what form the All Blacks’ leading light will arrive in.

Having been so impressive for the vast majority of 2016 and 2017, Eddie Jones’ England side have lacked the killer instinct that made them such a tough team to break down not too long ago. There were signs of life in England’s tour to South Africa as they lost the three-Test series 2-1 – and even with the abrupt retirement of first-choice prop Joe Marler, the drawing board appears to be slowly filling with fresh ideas.

The Guardian’s Robert Kitson is a little more sceptical in his estimations of the Red and Whites: “The chances of England prospering in Japan are on a par with Eddie Jones holidaying in Wales in the near future. English fans still clinging to the fast fading memories of 2016 and 2017 need to accept the opposition have not just caught up with Jones’s squad but, in several respects, overtaken them.”

But, for Barrett’s part, he can’t wait to get a taste of what many expect to be the Rugby World Cup final on 2 November 2019: “We’re really excited. We’ve known about this game for a long time now, we’ve talked about it a lot and we know England have worked hard on their game over the last few months.

“Rugby can change pretty quick. England had won how many on the trot, and recently it’s a little bit different. So we can’t get ahead of ourselves over here. Having played them before I know that they will be up for it, especially playing at Twickenham, too. It’s a different beast in there.”

There will be a day where I need to go offshore or do something different

If there’s one thing Barrett expects it’s that Eddie Jones will have his share of tricks up his sleeve: “I’ve only met Eddie once before, but I’ve been very impressed by the success he achieved in England straight away. He got a team around him and got England playing with a lot of freedom. That’s what I really enjoyed and admired about his style from afar. It’s been great to see the way the English have adapted to using the ball. Right now, I’m sure there are just one or two things missing that can easily turn a switch and it will start to happen again for them.”

England will certainly need to have found something ahead of their clash with New Zealand on 10 November, because while the Roses have faltered the All Blacks have shown themselves to be as good as ever.
Fresh faces like Beauden’s brothers Scott and Jordie (the latter, at just 21 years old, is touted for greatness in New Zealand’s back line) have added the renewed excitement that those early Test caps bring to any ambitious player. More than that, it’s a team with a quiet determination at its core.

“We have very high expectations of the team, and we never want to let the jersey down,” Barrett explains. “Winning is not enough for us. We’re on the pursuit of excellence and that never fails to motivate us.”

It should be obvious by now but Barrett is a ‘one game at a time’ kind of guy. Yet, you can’t help wondering what lies ahead for man with the rugby world at his feet. In the twilight of his career Dan Carter accepted a move to Parisian side Racing 92 in 2015 reportedly worth a tasty $1.5m a season.

Were Barrett to follow his compatriot away from Kiwi shores (a widely unpopular move in a country is patriotic as New Zealand) he would likely become the highest paid rugby player in history – it’s difficult to speculate, but you can imagine a French team owner sliding across the cheque book and asking the fly-half to write down whatever number he liked.

“The All Blacks is the pinnacle in New Zealand. I want to keep playing here for as long as possible, but there will be a day where I need to go offshore or do something different. I’m not dismissing personal achievements, but certainly winning championships is something that I’m seriously interested in, whether it’s the Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship or World Cup. That’s where I get my biggest satisfaction – team success.”

Living in Ireland for 18 months in his teenage years has led many pundits to suggest that the Emerald Isle is his likely end destination, but Barrett isn’t in the mood to decide his future when he’s chatting to me.
“I really loved Ireland. It’s my second home. I wouldn’t say that if I were to move overseas I would definitely go there, but I certainly wouldn’t count it out.”

Of course, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself when you’re talking to the best rugby player on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to know what’s going on in his head? What ambitions he has left in the sport – and just how he intends to dissect England’s line in November? (He wouldn’t tell me….) The answer to most of these questions is straightforward: “Really, I just want to knuckle down and play my best footie.”

Play on, Beauden, play on.

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