Wellington - Beauden Barrett's return to Super Rugby on Friday should serve
to ease a concern or two for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen about his Rugby
World Cup selection plans.
It will also no doubt trigger another round of one of the most popular
debates in rugby-mad New Zealand - who should start at flyhalf at the World Cup
in England later this year?
Barrett, who will return from a knee injury this weekend, was the early
favourite ahead of veteran Dan Carter, Colin Slade and the now injured Aaron
Cruden, who is almost certainly out of the World Cup after knee surgery.
The 24-year-old Barrett's blistering pace, booming kicks, willingness to attack
and ability to unleash a potent backline helped propel the Hurricanes to the
top of the Super Rugby standings.
Such was his form, an internet poll run by the New Zealand Herald newspaper
earlier this week had Barrett garnering 45 percent of the more than 4100 votes
as the preferred choice to pilot the world champions in their title defence.
Carter was second-favourite on 37 percent, with his injured Crusaders team
mate Slade, who has leapt into World Cup contention in no small part because of
his versatility, a long way back on 10 percent.
It was little surprise that Carter, who is leaving New Zealand rugby for
French side Racing Metro at the conclusion of the World Cup, had dropped behind
his former understudy.
The 33-year-old has barely played in his preferred position this season and
appeared mostly at inside centre, where he was unable to provide the
penetration needed to make the Crusaders' attack less staid and predictable.
Carter's performances caused concerns for pundits, fans and even the All Blacks
selection panel, although they felt his form was a symptom of a wider malaise
at the Crusaders.
"Dan has had a tough couple of years, struggling with his body ...
(and) has been in a struggling team which hasn't helped," All Blacks
selector Grant Fox told TV3 last week.
Carter made just his third start in the number 10 jersey against the
Hurricanes last week.
While no-one would suggest he was back to the level that saw him twice named
World Player of the Year, there were aspects of his performance that showcased
the skill set and temperament needed to win test matches.
Carter kept the Hurricanes pinned inside their own territory with smart
kicking and game management and was willing to run the ball more often than
when he was cramped in the midfield.
Few would disagree the zip that characterised Carter's early career,
allowing him to accelerate and wrong foot the defence before finding support
players, has diminished.
By challenging the line, however, he creates doubt in defences, something
that was evident in Nelson against a Hurricanes side who also had to commit
players to the large frames of Robbie Fruean and Nemani Nadolo outside Carter.
He also kicked six of seven goals against the Hurricanes and has a far
superior goal-kicking record to Barrett, which could be crucial during the
knockout phases of the World Cup.
It is likely that will play a part in swaying the selection decision in his
favour, with Hansen widely known to prefer the cooler head of Carter in tight
Until last season when Barrett finally started his first test at flyhalf
against Argentina in Napier, Hansen had considered him more of a 'super-sub'
because of his ability to exploit tiring defences off the bench.
Barrett's big concern, however, was that in his last start at flyhalf,
against Wales in Cardiff last November, he did not stamp himself on the match
until the second half and made a greater impact when he shifted to fullback as
the All Blacks ran away with the game in the final 15 minutes.
Carter, meanwhile, has proven time and again that he can seize control from
the opening whistle, something Hansen knows only too well.