CAPE TOWN – Does Richie Mo’unga only look so good because he plays behind a “Rolls Royce” pack? Simple answer... No.
Last season, after Mo’unga had upstaged All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett in a couple of Super Rugby outings, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was asked whether those productions would see him rearrange his flyhalf pecking order.
While Hansen didn’t respond with a straight yes or no, he simply uttered that the Crusaders pivot has a Rolls Royce pack. And who can doubt that?
At that time, Mo’unga would already have built up a more-than-decent following in Aotearoa, and calls from the South Island to give him a start ahead of Barrett would have also increased. But before a full-blown rivalry could erupt, the ever-composed Kiwi mentor put a spanner in the works.
While the impact of getting good ball from your single-digit warriors cannot be underplayed, the 24-year-old should be seen as a compliment to his impressive pack, as opposed to the lucky beneficiary thereof.
Fans would have been treated to an all-too-appetising battle between Mo’unga and Barrett a few weeks ago already, but the latter didn’t feature in that game due to his extended All Blacks leave.
That showdown, while delayed, proved that maybe, just maybe, Hansen should reassess his options. Or should Mo’unga wait his time, like Barrett had to while serving his long apprenticeship under Dan Carter?
The difference is, of course, that Mo’unga has gone head-to-head with Barrett a few times, and the last match was one in which Mo’unga - had the rugby field been a boxing ring with the two flyhalves wearing the gloves - would have delivered a KO to Barrett. A vicious one.
In that Crusaders-Canes fixture, Barrett’s kicking continued on the predictable and at times plain poor path it’s been on in recent times.
He didn’t get his backline going. Two of his passes were intercepted, while some also found the grass. In general, his performance didn’t resemble that of a reigning, two-time World Player of the Year. The Beauden Barrett show didn’t make it onto the big screens at the Cake Tin.
The images of him tearing the field up seems to be vague ones now. That unpredictability is gone.
Mo’unga, on the other hand, has given the Crusaders direction, and he’s done it like a boss. You just have to have watched their game against the Waratahs (a game in which Mo’unga didn’t play) to realise how good a director he is. The Super Rugby giants missed him.
In addition to that, there’s also everything else be brings. Between him and Barrett, there couldn’t be a more exciting flyhalf battle.
On current form, Mo’unga has it. No doubt about that.
We also need to remember what Barrett can do, though. We need to remember the magic he’s created so many times before - in the form of creating opportunities or going for the try-line himself, a trip that was always made to look oh so easy thanks to his ridiculous pace.
But his dip in form in a World Cup year is concerning, and if it continues, Hansen will have no choice but to think of letting Mo’unga play a bigger role. And he’s going to have to communicate it.
While it has, until now, been clear that the All Black coach sees Barrett in the leading role on rugby’s bigger stage in Japan, the knowledge that he’s going to have to work for it just might have a galvanising effect.
And again, the Crusaders sure do have a Rolls Royce pack, but Richie Mo’unga sits behind the wheel of that machine.@WynonaLouw