Campbell Burnes sits down with the Hurricanes fullback, the best No 15 in the country last season, and discovers he is a man who knows his own mind.
Jordie Barrett enters his fifth season of Super Rugby knowing exactly where he’s going to play and exactly what he needs to do to help his beloved Hurricanes back to the heights.
In just four seasons, such is the quality of his rugby that he has risen to be fit to rank as the finest No 15, whose name is not Christian Cullen, in the franchise’s history.
Cory Jane, one of Barrett’s current ‘Canes coaches, would probably rank in behind this duo. Brilliant aerially and rapid at his peak, the ‘Heretaunga Hare’ did not, however possess the allround game of Barrett, in particular, with the boot.
Cullen, the ‘Paekakariki Express,’ was incomparable as a running fullback, racking up 56 tries in 85 games for the Hurricanes. He is the greatest player veteran TV commentator Grant Nisbett has seen.
Barrett may not be in Cullen’s league as an explosive counter-attacker, but his feats for the Canes are already many
Off the back of a northern tour with the 2016 All Blacks as an ‘apprentice,’ a season in which he was adjudged the best player in the Mitre 10 Cup (for Canterbury) as a 19-year-old, Barrett took to Super Rugby like the proverbial duck to water.
Seven tries and 144 points, mostly from fullback, catapulted him into the All Blacks and a start in the white-hot atmosphere of the third Test against the touring Lions. He scored a try.
In 2018 and 2019, Barrett was moved around more, onto the right wing or the midfield and often ceded the goalkicking to big brother Beauden.
He loved the 2020 season with the Hurricanes. New head coach Jason Holland told him he’d be at 15 from the get-go and taking the shots off the tee. He didn’t score a try, but compiled nearly a century of points and was clearly the best No 15 in Super Rugby, and not just in this country. The highlight was a monster 63m penalty goal against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. He’s like a beefier version of Francois Steyn, the Bok who sank All Blacks hearts in Hamilton back in 2009 with three penalty goals from his own half.
It all meant that Barrett, equipped to play all backline positions except halfback, was a lock for any All Blacks match-day squad of 23. More on his problematic All Blacks position soon.
He chats to Rugby News a few days after playing another prominent role, with bat and ball, in the third annual Black Clash cricket event. Cricket, even in the smallish off-season window that rugby pros have, is Barrett’s idea of active relaxation, along with a spot of fishing. Three games for his Pihama club were his preparation for the Black Clash. He struck 30 off 12 balls, but holed out to Dan Vettori.
But he opened up with the ball and his first delivery was a bouncer to a helmetless Peter Fulton.
“I actually went up to him immediately after the game when we had a drink and I said to him ‘Look, I’m sorry, I never intended to bowl a bouncer. I just wasn’t as accurate as I wanted to be.’ That’s the truth. I didn’t try to bump him. I just didn’t have that fluency,” says Barrett.
I’m glad he cleared that up. I had thought he’d sent a none too subtle reminder to a former Black Caps opener that he could get it through with his bowling. He’s still competitive, don’t worry about that.
The Hurricanes are an interesting prospect in 2021. It’s quite conceivable that, with their roster, they can challenge for the top in Super Rugby Aotearoa. But that comes with the caveat that their halves can dominate. No Super Rugby champion can win without the requisite control at 9-10.
“Last year we dropped the first two games (in SRA). That can be a good thing early in the season. It can give you an early marker as to where things need to be. We reviewed a lot of things where we needed to get better. I guess it motivated guys a lot more. It was good to see the group rebounding. A lot of positive things came from last year,” says Barrett.
Barrett likes what he sees when he runs his eye down the 2021 Hurricanes squad list.
“A few people have asked me how I think the team will go this coming season and where the squad’s at. I’m certainly a lot more confident now than this time last year. We’ve returned basically the whole forward pack. By the end of 2020, it was one of the best packs in the competition. There are some good young boys in there too,” he says.
The Hurricanes forwards have often never received due credit, much like the Highlanders pack down the years.
“They’re certainly not after credit, just as long as they win games. There’s (Tyrel) Lomax, a couple of good young props, Izzy Walker (Leawere) and other young guys like (Devan) Flanders and (Du’Plessis) Kirifi. It’s a pack I’m very much excited by,” says Barrett. Let us not forget Dane Coles, James Blackwell and Ardie Savea.
The major loss for the team is talismanic halfback TJ Perenara.
“He’s a massive part of our franchise. Ten years he’s been there, just his nous, presence, influence and leadership, that’s without even talking about his on-field influence as well. We’re losing a lot there without him, but it gives others an opportunity to step up into that role,” says Barrett.
Julian Savea is a notable gain. The big winger’s last full season with the Canes was Barrett’s first, back in 2017.
“Awesome to have Jules back. He’s looking lean and fit. I think the stint playing 12 in France has been good for him too. His skill levels are high. To have a guy like that, who’s scored almost 50 Test tries, back with a smile on his face, is great for us.”
It looks like Barrett’s understudy at fullback will be the promising Ruben Love, out of Palmerston North BHS and the Wellington Lions. Even at 24, Barrett is happy to mentor to a degree, though he talks like teens are quite different to relate to. He’s probably right.
“The beauty about a lot of these young boys now, they’ve got so much confidence. It’s just the way they tick now. It’s more about harnessing that, giving them not too much detail but telling them to go out and back their ability. Some of these kids have got so much talent nowadays. From my past experience, they get some of their best lessons from doing things and coming out the other side,” he says.
“It’d be nice to see Ruben get some game time and get involved, because he’s a good raw talent and who knows where he could end up?”
Maybe not in the Hurricanes’ No 15 jersey if Barrett re-signs with NZR and the Canes to extend beyond 2022.
We’ll have to wait and see what happens with the Hurricanes’ goalkicking. Both first fives Jackson Garden-Bachop and Simon Hickey are accurate off the tee, as is Barrett, who will surely take all the long-range attempts. The latter reckons he’ll have to put in some work if he’s to be the first choice, but he is comfortable either way.
He seems to have formed a good rapport with coach Holland, who knows his man can play almost anywhere in the backline, but knows he is of most value at 15 for the Hurricanes.
“Certainty is nice. I like going from week to week knowing what’s required of me. I enjoyed playing 15 every game last year and just trying to build on every performance. I took confidence from week to week and getting big minutes. I do like the responsibility of goalkicking and kicking for touch. Jase knows that, which is kinda why he thrust those duties upon me,” says Barrett.
“I can get a handle on the game and get into it a bit more. That’s something I want to get better at this year and hopefully thrive in that position.”
That doesn’t mean Barrett has always been vocal and demanding with coaches over where he plays.
“Early on, you do as you’re told. I wasn’t going to have an argument with the coach and tell them I’m better suited somewhere else,” he says.
Chris Boyd and John Plumtree were his head coaches from 2017-19 and, in fairness, Barrett saw ample game time at 15, occasionally shifted out to wing, centre or once at 12.
“I’ve built a very good relationship with Jase Holland now. He knows what I want and he knows what I want out of myself and the team. Fifteen is well suited for me at the moment. Who knows, if I slow down later in my career, I feel like I can play a few years at 12. That will be my secondary position later on, but 15 is very much the focus for me at the moment.”
If he was to play regularly at 12 for the Hurricanes, he may have to wait until Ngani Laumape moves on, as much of the team’s play is built around him, as it was with Ma’a Nonu on occasion.
It is, of course, a different scenario with the All Blacks. He has started seven of his 23 Tests at the back, but he’s not going to throw his toys out of the cot if they shunt him to the right wing, as happened in 2020. He was still the leading tryscorer and only back to start all six Tests, so it was not as though he was marginalised. But you don’t have to be Wayne Smith to see that his attacking talents are best utilised, at this stage of his career, at the back. Problem is, there is a lengthy queue of classy performers who can suit up there.
As I expressed in the December/January Rugby News, if Barrett junior is the best fullback in Super Rugby 2021, then hand him the No 15 jersey for the internationals. Barrett senior may have to take his chance off the bench or head to head with Richie Mo’unga.
“The (All Blacks) coaches and other players are under no illusions. They know I want to play 15. But if you’re told to play somewhere else, you get on and do that and try and play as well as you can. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I certainly enjoyed playing on the wing, but I’d love to play 15 at some stage,” says Barrett.
His immediate wish-list features a second Super Rugby championship for the Canes. They were buoyed by halting the Crusaders’ imposing home winning streak, a 34-32 result last July in which Barrett coolly slotted 19 points. One day he would love to see all three brothers reunited in the Hurricanes, rather than scattered through New Zealand. Funnier things have happened.
For now, Barrett is steeling himself for the relentless nature of matches against the other four Kiwi teams.
“From a viewer’s point of view, every game is a genuine coin toss. Squads have so much depth and talent. Not that many guys are shipping offshore. NZ derbies are so hard and hard to prepare for, where to try and exploit teams. They are tough, physically and mentally, but it’s where you want to be, playing against the best players in the world.”
If he can repeat his 2020 season, then the Hurricanes will go alright. And he might just force the hand of the wise men.
JORDIE BARRETT IN SUPER RUGBY
2017: 18 games/7 tries/144 points
*13 at 15, 3 as sub, 2 at 13
2018: 16 games/3 tries/56 points
*10 at 15, 5 at 13, 1 as sub
2019: 15 games//5 tries/72 points
*10 at 15, 3 at 14, 1 at 13, 1 at 12
2020: 11 games/94 points
*11 at 15
Totals: 60 games/15 tries/
Starts at 15: 44
Starts at 14: 3
Starts at 13: 8
Starts at 12: 1