You do not get a better rugby team than the New Zealand All Blacks. South Africa and Australia have both won the Rugby World Cup twice, and England once. The All Blacks have won three times, and are heavily favoured to make it a fourth win – which would be a quite-frankly unfair three wins in a row – when the World Cup unfolds in Japan between 20th September and 2nd November. No player carries the fortunes of the All Blacks in his hands more than the creative genius that is Beauden Barrett, Revolution UK #23 cover star and proud ambassador for Tudor.
You can look at Barrett in numbers: 1200 points for the Hurricanes, his former club, and more than 600 in the famous All Blacks shirt. World Rugby Player of the Year back-to-back in 2016 and 2017. But it is best to look at him as a spectacle. He is not the huge bruiser that you get in a lot of the other positions on the field, but his raw pace, ball handling and ability to dance around the opposing players are incredible. The title of one of the many highlights videos on YouTube puts it best: Beauden Barrett – Making the Impossible Look Easy.
And he really does. So when Barrett spoke to Revolution just before heading off to Japan, I wanted to ask him how on earth he does it. I am not the best person in the world to ask forensic questions about rugby skills. I played for years, but a) only at school, and b) I was one of those players that had to make up for a lack of skill with a willingness to put my head into a painful scrum of armpits, elbows and arses.
But even if you have never played rugby, everyone knows what it’s like to have a ball fired towards you at high speed – there is not a lot of time to think. Try watching Barrett play. He seems to have ages, to calmly flick, palm or chip the ball exactly where he wants it, as if he has all the time in the world, oblivious to the fact that there are several angry beasts in different coloured shirts bearing down on him.
“As kids, we were always encouraged to play creatively, to express ourselves on the field,” he said. “That’s just the way it is when you grow up playing rugby in New Zealand. That’s the way my parents and my coaches always taught me to play. If you try some new move and it comes off, you think ‘amazing – it was all worth it’ – so much better than being boring or by the book.”
The skills were being honed long before he set foot on a rugby pitch, according to Barrett. “I vividly remember first learning to catch outside my Nana’s house,” he said. “She would hit tennis balls higher and higher and I would have to catch them. I think she just saw it as a bit of fun, but then she saw the look on my face – she knew how much I loved it and before long I was begging her to come out and play.”
While some people like to look at skill as something some have and others don’t, Barrett is keen to stress that repetitive practice is vital for anyone. “Some of it comes down to your mental state, some down to your skill sets,” Barrett said. “But you need to work hard on your catching and your timing, to make sure you are getting the ball at the right time, not too early, not too late. That is essentially timing, but also if you feel at ease in your mind and in a place when you’re instinctive, that’s when you find more time, rather than having a busy mind and getting bogged down and slowed down. There’s a perfect mix, a secret to mastering it, and the best way is through repetition and being thrown in and challenged and learning from experience.”
It’s not all about skill, of course. When Barrett sees a gap, he has fierce acceleration to tear through the defences and his speed doesn’t let up until he’s over the line. One of his many records is that he’s the only player to have scored three tries in a single match against Australia. And to do that you really need some gas. But he is always keen to stress that the game is about consistency, what you put into it for the whole match, rather than just in bursts.
“You have to put in the work for the whole game,” he said. “It involves a lot of patience. You have to try and push the odds in your favour, like developing moves that can turn a 50:50 ball into an 80:20 ball.”
A Fearsome Family
Barrett’s father Kevin played for both Taranaki and the Hurricanes. Of his five sons, four went on to play rugby professionally. In one test match against Samoa in 2017, Beauden, Jordie and Scott all wore the All Blacks jersey – the first three brothers to do so – although not all were on the pitch at the same time. The oldest of the four rugby-playing Barrett boys, the strapping forward Kane, was forced to retire from the professional game after suffering a series of concussions. The All Blacks play beautifully, but there is no getting around the fact that you constantly have huge guys charging at you trying to smash you out of contention. With it clearly such a high-impact sport, do thoughts of getting injured ever play on Beauden Barrett’s mind?
“No. Simple,” he says incredibly quickly – demonstrating that he really has NO time to think about injury. “You have to commit yourself 100 per cent, and if you go into a game worried or with fear, it isn’t worth it. You have to be fully committed for yourself and the team.”
If not injury, then what about pressure? Maybe Barrett can stamp out the fear, but he must surely feel the immense weight of expectation on his shoulders, especially at fly-half, a vital position for feeding the ball out to the centers and wingers and giving them the space to run in the tries, and with so many people favouring New Zealand to win?
“Pressure is something I’ve had to just deal with, something I have learnt to cope with over the years. I’ve not always been part of winning teams and winning only happens if you keep working hard for it. If other people think that [we are the favorites to win] well that’s great, but it is just their opinion. But I have to be confident in my ability and my team’s ability. We might be favorites, but I don’t look at the betting odds and think ‘God we’re supposed to win’, I know we have to work hard to be successful – it doesn’t just happen, it is not our right.”
Passing It On
This is one thing for a seasoned pro, a player who already has a World Cup win under his belt. But what about the younger players? Does he see himself developing a mentoring role?
“I understand how daunting it can be to start out in the All Blacks. As a senior player I want to make that as comfortable for them as possible, to help them relax and play the way they can, and really express themselves on the field. I’ve only been to one World Cup but I think you have to look at each competition as this unique, one-off tournament. You can’t look further than, I guess, the pool games – you have to earn the right to get into the quarter finals. So you just embrace everything that comes with the tournament. The World Cup is a great time for rugby, and the whole thing has such a festival feel about it.”
Barrett grew up on a farm in the beautiful but undeniably remote region of Taranaki, on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. He has come a long way from the farm – flying around the world being part of the world’s most glamorous rugby team, he has also become an ambassador for Tudor. Like Barrett, the brand itself lived a quiet life before becoming a global superstar of its own in recent years.
A Watchmaker’s Eye
We all know that for certain ambassadors, a watch brand is all about boosting the portfolio, but with Barrett you can tell his interest is genuine. He has been out to Tudor in Geneva to see the watches he wears being made. He’s even had a go at taking a basic watch movement apart and putting it back together. We compared experiences about doing this for the first time. I found it difficult, but knowing that somebody as silkily skilful as him also struggled was comforting. Barrett enjoyed playing have-a-go watchmaker, but was particularly impressed by seeing the professionals at work.
“The way the watchmakers approach their craft is phenomenal,” he said. “The watches they make are amazing and the manufacture itself is an incredible place. It is such a peaceful environment and they are all totally focused on what they are doing, in their own little zone and shutting out the outside world. I am good at doing that when I’m taking a kick. But watchmaking takes such a steady hand, those little tweezers and all the tiny screws – I was shaking a fair bit when I tried it, I don’t mind telling you.”
He used to love watches from afar, because “I didn’t really have the budget, but I used to look forward to maybe being able to buy something nice when I was older.” He has been a Tudor ambassador for more than two years and enjoys quite a collection. “Right now, I’m wearing the GMT, but the guys at Tudor have been very good to me so I rotate them quite often, putting on a different watch for different occasions, depending on what I feel like wearing. The one I reach for most is the very first Black Bay Black that I got, which is very special to me.”
Back on the Farm
Barrett is involved in the Japan launch of the new Black Bay Chrono Dark and has been involved in various big events in the run-up to the World Cup. All that sounds quite hectic. Does he not feel the call of life back on the farm?
“Oh, for sure. I have a few happy places but one of them is definitely on the farm back home. I go back there whenever I can and my world just slows down. I’m away from any hype, any criticism, any pressure. There is just my family, the farm, the ocean, the mountains, it’s so cool. When I’m travelling the world, I immediately miss my wife, my family, my dogs. I will never forget where I’m from: coastal Taranaki.”
In his club career, Barrett recently decided to leave the Hurricanes, where he has spun his magic for the last eight years in the New Zealand capital Wellington. He recently got married and his new club, the Blues, is based in Auckland, at the opposite end of the island.
“I made a big career decision to move up to Auckland, where my wife’s from, for family reasons. If we have kids, they will be spending time in Taranaki. I would want my kids to have the opportunity to have the life that I have had. I like the city, too, but it’s great to see a bit of both worlds. I am involved in a lot of global events, but unfortunately my timetable with rugby means that I can’t go to as many as I’d like, but hopefully there will be time for more of that in the future.” Even though only 28, with retirement not yet on the horizon, Barrett is thinking of the future in an open-minded way but insists he doesn’t yet know what he’ll do.
What he is very clear on is that, despite the achievements, there is no time for sitting back and revelling in his accomplishments so far. You would struggle to find a flicker of ego, and everything is put in terms of what an immense privilege it is for him to wear the All Blacks shirt, rather than any sense that the team is lucky to have Barrett.
A clearly intelligent man with a bright future, any talks of coaching rugby, or of being an ambassador for the game are put aside. “I don’t yet have any concrete plans post-rugby, but I want to keep all doors open and an open mind. All I can control is what I’m doing at the moment. And that means trying to play the best footie possible.”
And right now, there is the little matter of taking care of business in Japan.
The Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan between September 20th and November 2nd 2019.