The big talking point in the All Blacks team to play Argentina on Saturday in Napier is Beauden Barrett getting his first start at first-five.
For a young man (he’s 23 years old, which looks mighty young from my vantage point) who has already played 21 tests, it seems odd to be focusing on his selection as significant. But only 2 of those tests have been in the run-on team, and both of those at fullback. He has shone in the 19 tests he’s come on as a substitute, when his pace, daring and guile have been shown to best advantage late in the game.
Being the starting fly-half means negotiating the first 20 minutes of pressure, driving the team around the park while the forwards sort themselves out and the gaps begin to appear in the backs. He has a beautiful boot, and a physicality in contact that surprises given his apparently slight build. And courage aplenty in the tackle, which will be put to the test against a big Puma pack running the inside channel.
His selection, with Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden sidelined with injury, and with Colin Slade on the bench, indicates the extraordinary depth of fly-half talent in New Zealand at the moment. And that’s without reaching into the developing talents of Tom Taylor, Lima Sopoaga (what a loss to Wellington this season), Damian McKenzie and Ihaia West.
No, the positions that really worry at the moment are hooker, prop and halfback. Dane Coles (a good Poneke lad) is coming along nicely, but we need to be honest that Keven Mealamu is showing his age. He’s been a fabulous servant, but we need a couple more pushing through. The props are the same, so good to see Joe Moody on the bench this weekend. At halfback, Aaron Smith is fulfilling his early promise, but we need Perenara and Kerr-Barlow to be closing the gap.
Make no mistake, this is going to be a difficult test. Coming back to earth after that sublime game against Australia, and against a Puma team hurting from two close losses against the Springboks, could be more of a bump than a step. And the forecast is for wet.
All eyes on how Barrett handles the pressure.