Prior to the two sides being announced last Thursday, whereas it was a fait accompli that Ireland’s newest centurion, Johnny Sexton, would be starting at outhalf, it was still a source of conjecture whether New Zealand’s newest 100-capper, Beauden Barrett, would be their chosen man.
Whereas Sexton, the World Player of the Year in 2018, has remained Ireland's first-choice '10', there have been no such assurances for Barrett - World Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 - since the emergence of Richie Mo'unga.
Mo’unga, who made his debut three years ago, has started 24 of his 30 Tests at outhalf with Barrett either shifted to fullback, where admittedly he’s not too shabby, or has happened six times this year, even on the bench. Ye Gods! This wouldn’t happen to Barrett in any other team on the planet.
"For me, I've always said it, Beauden Barrett is probably New Zealand's best rugby player but I think Richie Mo'unga is New Zealand's best '10'," the former All Blacks and Harlequins outhalf Nick Evans, now part of the latter's coaching ticket alongside Jerry Flannery, told The Irish Times this week.
That said, Evans thought Barrett would be given the playmaking reins, partly on the premise that Mo'unga didn't do enough to oust him when New Zealand were off colour against Italy in Rome last Saturday. By comparison, Barrett marked his 100th cap against Wales the week before with a two-try, player of the match performance.
Ireland, in truth, haven’t been a million miles behind New Zealand in producing Test quality outhalves and sometimes even rivalries akin to Barrett and Mo’unga.
Following on from the Ollie Campbell/Tony Ward rivalry in the ‘80s, there was the Dean/Ward rivalry, then Ralph Keyes had a stint and Brian Smith who was imported from Australia, before finally Eric Elwood laid claim to the Irish ‘10’ jersey.
This precipitated rivalries between Elwood and David Humphreys, then Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara, and latterly O'Gara and Sexton. Only after Humphreys' retirement in 2005 was there a four-year dependency on O'Gara, which was even more pronounced than it is currently on Sexton.
Yet Paddy Jackson had arrived in time to take over the baton from O’Gara, even replacing him in the latter stages of the 2013 Six Nations. Jackson looked every inch Sexton’s understudy/heir apparent when starting all three Tests in South Africa in June 2016 before being exiled in 2018 in the fall-out from the Belfast rape trial.
For three years after guiding Ireland to victory in a final quarter debut in Chicago four years ago this week, the same description could have been applied to Joey Carbery until that ankle injury in the World Cup warm-up match against Italy in August 2019. The hope persists that the classy 26-year-old can still be that outhalf, his natural gifts having, of course, been honed in New Zealand, where he was born and raised until the age of 11.
Nor have the All Blacks’ options always been plentiful. At the outset of professionalism, Grant Fox guided New Zealand to the inaugural 1995 World Cup and started 45 of their 58 matches over the following eight years, playing on until he was 33.
Evans is old enough to remember playing mini and under-age rugby barefooted and then watching Grant Fox, more of a goal-kicking, old school outhalf, in the afternoon and guiding New Zealand to the inaugural World Cup. “I would basically go back outside and recreate him.”
All changed when Andrew Mehrtens came along, and especially Carlos Spencer. “That was close to maverick play, where almost everything was play what you see and trying to find ways to do the unconventional of breaking teams down.
“Aw man, it was unreal to watch that as a teenager. ‘What’s going on here?’ He’d dink the ball off his knee. You would also have Mehrtens doing these unreal plays with the Crusaders backline, which was basically the All Blacks backline at the time. There was a definite shift when those guys came onto the scene.”
And then along came Dan Carter – who simply had it all.
“I played against him and the kid had everything, the kicking game, the goal-kicking, the core skills, the natural flair. There was a bit of Carlos Spencer and Andrew Mehrtens through the Canterbury stables he came through. He had the ability to play what he sees and game management, and that’s why he was so good and had such longevity in the game.”
Yet the flip side of Carter’s brilliance was that through the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cup cycles, the All Blacks became overly dependent upon him.
Carter went off injured in the ‘07 quarter-final against France in Cardiff after carrying an ankle injury into the game, meaning Evans trained at ‘10’ all week.
“I came on but did my hammy chasing back on their second try - I won’t mention the forward pass. It wasn’t one of my better memories,” admits Evans wryly of what was his only defeat in 16 Tests.
When Carter tore his groin during goalkicking practice in the group stages on home soil four years later, this was compounded by Colin Slade suffering the same fate.
An SOS went out to the previously discarded Stephen Donald, who was whitebait fishing on the Waikato River. After replacing a stricken Aaron Cruden in the final, Donald kicked the winning penalty in their 8-7 win over France in the final when, in truth, they were blessed.
“That’s fair,” admits Evans of the All Blacks’ dependency on Carter, “but when you have someone like that (Carter) you want to play him. Sometimes that can be to the detriment of bringing other people through and giving them the exposure that they need for when the unthinkable happens.”
Ironically, just when they were planning for life without Carter, he turned back the clock, regained his place and guided New Zealand to the 2015 World Cup at 33.
As Evans points out, Carter’s brilliance and longevity also meant a steady flow of good ‘10s’ who might have made more of an impact at Test level in other eras had their chances restricted, and like him often carved out good careers overseas.
He cites the equivalent case of Richie McCaw at number ‘7’.
“He dominated the jersey for so long and then people forget the likes of Marty Holah and Josh Blackie. Some of those guys that may have got 10 to 20 caps and were unbelievable players. I know I’m probably seeing this through rose-tinted glasses but it’s the same for the ‘10s’ as well.
“Carter dominated the jersey for so long. There were some really good ‘10s’ coming through, and a lot of them ended up getting a few Tests. (Aaron) Cruden was fantastic, Colin Slade played a little bit, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Gopperth – good ‘10s’ who have gone on to do some pretty good things overseas.
“When you compare them to the greats of the Carters and the McCaws, it’s a bit like comparing the ‘10s’ coming through in Ireland to Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton.
“I’m firmly in the camp that they were some fantastic players coming through but it probably just enhances what the All Black jersey is all about, that you have to be the best of the best to get that jersey, especially when you’ve got once-in-a-generation players that get a hold of it.”
Modesty forbids Evans from mentioning himself but after that 2007 World Cup he too decided to pack his bags at the age of 27 and move to Harlequins. His career illustrates the point too. Evans made his debut against England in 2004 and kicked 20 points in his first start at outhalf against Ireland in November 2005 and yet despite being Carter’s understudy at the 2007 World Cup, had only played three Tests at ‘10’ going into that tournament.
“Yeah, it was extremely frustrating, but at the time when you’re in that All Black environment, it’s all about what you can do for the team and my job was to come on if required and help the team get the wins. That was my job, and when I got those opportunities like I did at Lansdowne Road and when I look back I’m pretty happy with what I did.”
“I was nearly 28 and there was the opportunity to play a lot of rugby for a club that suited me, that’s why I left. Most probably Carter was going to start most games and I took the opportunity and I don’t regret that at all. It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Evans, while acknowledging he may be biased, also believes that by its very nature, New Zealand rugby produces a certain brand of outhalves compared to other countries.
“I think it all stems with how you’re brought up with the game. In England you go to a park and people are playing football. You go to New Zealand and people play rugby, but it’s everyone playing rugby, and it’s not just in the parks, it’s wherever anyone can find a piece of grass. It might be around trees, or maybe on the beach. So for everyone it’s all about trying to beat people and skill levels.
“The natural DNA of the country is how the game is played and therefore, naturally out of that, you’re not going to produce ‘10s’ who sit in the pocket or play ten-man rugby. This is then aligned to all the other positions as well, of how the game is played.
“There’s a natural instinct to want to play and score tries, to play what’s in front of you, not get bogged down in systems and structures, and having a death by structure. That’s just going to produce robots, who get to a specific point in a game and look to the coaches: ‘What do you want me to do here?’ Historically, over more than 100 years, that is not what New Zealand has produced.”
Leading New Zealand outhalves of the professional era:
Grant Fox (1985-1993) 645 points.
Andrew Mehrtens (1995-2004) 70 caps, 967 points.
Carlos Spencer (1997-2004) 35 caps, 291 points.
Dan Carter (2003-2015) 112 caps, 1,598 points.
Aaron Cruden (2010-2017) 50 caps, 322 points.
Beauden Barrett (2012- ) 100 caps, 703 points.
Richie Mo’unga (2018- ) 30 caps, 275 points.
Leading Irish outhalves of the professional era:
Eric Elwood (1993-1999) 35 caps, 296 points.
David Humphreys (1996-2005) 72 caps, 560 points.
Ronan O’Gara (2000-2013) 128 caps, 1,083 points.
Johnny Sexton (2009- ) 100 caps, 941 points.
Paddy Jackson (2013-2017) 25 caps, 195 points.