In the wake of last Saturday night in Perth there has been some (almost surprisingly) controlled gnashing of teeth from talkback callers. Have the ghosts of centre position experiments past with Cullen, McDonald and Muliaina not taught us anything? Not many of the rugby public at large seemed altogether comfortable with moving two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett to fullback for the All Blacks a few weeks ago, and that collective hunch has proven to be correct.
In fact the problem isn’t so much the fact that Richie Mo’unga can’t one day be as good as Barrett has been in the ‘10’ jersey. What does stand out though, like an alsatian’s bits and pieces, is that the runners and attackers, with their lines playing through Mo’unga, are unusually hesitant, or worse, seem confused about what they should do or where the space should be.
For three and a half seasons it was Barrett who was in charge of the backline- the chief tactician and the one who ignited the attack and advised his second-five to pass the message along the line on defence. Suddenly now there is a brand new voice to listen to and a much different style to get accustomed to. Ideally it should take around a season to gel properly. The All Blacks are trying to re-invent their backline wheel with only a two-month leeway to play with. And things are currently looking more than just a wee bit wobbly.
There’s a pervading feeling that we are getting a bit desperate to halt a slide which accelerated
when England somehow contrived to lose from dominating, and Ireland gave us a bit of a shellacking on the northern tour late last year. After those slightly uncomfortable surprises, have Shag and his staff gone into panic mode a little? Perhaps a tad but I don’t believe so exactly. It was more of a case of Mo’unga’s inclusion being a move to accommodate the most talent possible within the starting XV. With the added bonus of having an extra goalkicker from the start. But it’s not working very well; things are looking a bit messy and fraught.
Naturally we’re all great armchair selectors, but it’s because we care, after all. Keep players in their rightful positions, take tinkering off the ‘to do’ list and bin the Mo’unga-Barrett experiment before reaching Japan- the ghouls of past World Cup shambles’ say so anyway.
Paul M (firstname.lastname@example.org)