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Beauden Barrett says it’s been sad to have the games in South Africa wall back for New Zealanders.
Be careful what you wish for. Even when you’re Beauden Barrett.
The star All Blacks playmaker loves different, and the next fortnight in South Africa definitely comes into that category as the New Zealanders take on a challenge with multiple levels of complexity.
It’s been well documented what a tight spot the All Blacks are in as they prepare for back-to-back tests against the world champion Springboks in Mbombela and Johannesburg over the next two Saturdays. It’s been a long, long time since this team was at such a low ebb, having lost four of their last five internationals, and just been toppled at home in a series for the first time in 28 years.
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Their confidence is down, they are missing some key people, including veteran lock Brodie Retallick and their top two tighthead props, they have just had a coaching shakeup and multiple aspects of their game are in urgent need of serious improvement. You can probably count on two fingers the form All Blacks from July.
Then there’s the scarcity element. Not so long ago New Zealand rugby players used to spend a decent chunk of their year in the republic, between the annual Super Rugby pilgrimage and All Blacks visits. Kiwis were well versed in the intricacies of the African challenge.
But South Africa’s omission from the latest iteration of Super Rugby and the challenges of international travel since the pandemic’s arrival have wall the interaction right back. The All Blacks didn’t play the Boks at all in 2020, met them twice in Australia last year and this two-test mini-tour is the first time the Kiwi side has played back-to-back tests in the republic since 2009. Don’t ask how that turned out, either, if you’re the nervous type.
“It’s huge,” reflected Barrett in the wake of an Irish series that saw him well below his usual high standards. “It’s a championship we’re about to get into. I’ve never played two games in a row in South Africa and I can’t remember the last time a New Zealand team did.
“What a challenge for us right now. It’s one we’re going to get stuck into, and it’s one we need right now. Touring South Africa is right up there as one of the biggest tests you’ll ever get.”
In fact, Barrett doesn’t mind admitting he misses it. For 10 of the All Blacks squad it will be their first visit to the republic. That, says the 104-test All Black and two-time world player of the year, is just flat-out sad.
“It’s a great place to tour and they play a pretty intense and fierce style of rugby. It’s great for this team, and it’s what we need right now,” he says. “We’re tight, and we’ve got to be as it’s a tough place to go to test ourselves.
“I truly miss it a lot… not just the Super Rugby travel, but especially the international travel. We’re used to getting away there at least twice a year, and in terms of the competition, I miss playing the South African teams.”
Barrett said a combustive mix went into making this the toughest road trip for a rugby player.
“There’s the travel. As young players we learned how to deal with that. A number of our young boys have never been here before, so that’s a factor. Then there’s the time difference, the climate, the altitude, not to mention the crowd and how hostile they can be and the intensity of the South Africans playing at home. It all makes for a great challenge.”
In terms of the All Blacks’ formula, Barrett figured circumstances dictated a streamlined approach.
“It’s about simplifying things, rather than adding more layers to what we’re doing, and ultimately we’ll be out there playing with a free head and not a cluttered one. We’re all excited for the subtle changes that will be made.
“The answers will be in the room – in the circle. It’s not about adding layers of complexity, it’s about keeping it simple and finding solutions. We’re excited about that challenge. Yes, our backs may be against the wall, but we always have pressure on our shoulders, and the external pressure never exceeds the internal.
“What we’re looking to get is more clarity and simplicity in what we’re doing, so we can go out and play footy and back ourselves. Fozzy won’t be over-complicating things. It’s about keeping to an efficient game-plan, do the basics well and have simple focuses. We’re not going over to reinvent the wheel.
“I’m confident we’ll bounce back and we’re determined to keep improving. Let’s just get stuck into it now, and what a place do it in South Africa against the world champions in back to back test matches. I don’t know the last time we’ve had to test that big.”