Warren Gatland might just allow himself a smile.
Just a wee one, because the Crusaders revealed where he might find the All Blacks’ Kryptonite. They may just have shown that Beauden Barrett’s a superstar, but he’s not Superman.
The Crusaders’ win against the Hurricanes in Christchurch was about as close to a test match as it gets. In fact, that match would eclipse many tests in terms of intensity, pace and defensive brutality.
If that is what the British and Irish Lions will face during their 10-game tour (and they will play the Crusaders with their All Blacks) then they are in for a harrowing month or so.
But Gatland will take some solace from what happened to the Hurricanes, and in particular their star first five. Having set the Super Rugby competition alight with his creative play, Barrett spent most of the match in Christchurch on the back foot, kicking poorly for position, unable to run, unable to put his backs away and forced to watch the Crusaders produce the kick-pass he’d used so well just a week before.
Outside Barrett, midfielders Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso also struggled to produce the sort of line-breaking form that’s been the hallmark of the Hurricanes’ season.
Now surely a dead-set lock to be the All Blacks second-five, Ryan Crotty’s defense and his ability to marshal those around him meant the Hurricanes backs were well below their best. With Barrett on the back foot and the midfield contained, the potentially potent back three of Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett and Cory Jane were largely spectators.
Gatland will have seen that – and how the Crusaders forwards laid the platform for their defence. The Lions will copy much of what the Crusaders did – or at least, they will try to. Gatland will base his game around a pack that rolls their sleeves up and a second-five who is more of an organiser than an explosive linebreaker – I’m thinking England’s Owen Farrell here.
It certainly worked for the Crusaders. The Hurricanes had scored 63 tries in their previous nine games, an average of seven per game, but were kept try-less in Christchurch. It’s the first time that’s happened to them since they lost 27-9 to the Sharks in Durban in the season opener in 2014. Mark Hammett was the coach back then.
But Lions fans should temper their excitement.
The Crusaders showed that, deprived of decent ball, Beauden Barrett isn’t Superman. “He’s human, isn’t he,” All Blacks great Grant Fox, who is helping pick the 33 All Blacks to take on the Lions, says.
But Fox isn’t worried by what he saw from Barrett in Christchurch because he knows the All Blacks’ game-breaker will have a vastly different pack to play behind against the Lions, and that those outside him, like Crotty, will take the pressure off him.
“We have to get our game right to make sure Beauden doesn’t get that sort of ball very often. We have to take the heat off him,” says Fox.
“You are going to get static ball, you are going to have them zipped up, it’s going to become a bash-fest at times. So you have to make sure that players you have got around him actually understand that sometimes we have to run different lines to take the heat off him, so we can get that quick ball going forward so Beauden can play his natural game.”
What will give Gatland pause for thought is the very thing that caused Barrett and the Hurricanes so many headaches. The Crusaders had an All Blacks tight five – and that’s without Sam Whitelock. Steve Hansen will add to that pack Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.
It’s often said when England play the All Blacks that the New Zealand pack “should be able to reach parity”, as if England are the benchmark. It’s the All Blacks setting the bar now. Their scrum is very good and their lineout’s reliable. And they have loose forwards who combine speed, ball running power and defence in an often brutal fashion.
Rest assured the black pack will give Barrett ample opportunity to be back to his brilliant best. After all, they set the platform that saw him named World Rugby’s player of the year last year.
Gatland knows that too.