Wellington — All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has pretty much ended the debate over whether Richie Mo’unga would be his starting flyhalf for the Rugby Championship by backing the more experienced Beauden Barrett.
Both were named in Hansen’s squad on Monday.
Mo’unga’s performances in helping the Crusaders to their ninth Super Rugby title had seen a groundswell of opinion for him to supplant Barrett. However, Hansen said on Monday Barrett’s proven ability at Test level would sway his decision for the opener against Australia in Sydney on August 18.
"He’s [Mo’unga] played one Test and he’s got competition from the specialist five-eighth in Beauden Barrett, who’s played 64 [Tests]," Hansen said after he named the squad. "Both of them are very good rugby players. Our job is to maximise the talent we’ve got and over time you will see Richie get more test matches I’m sure."
Hansen said that a similar debate had been circulating before the previous Rugby World Cup in England when Barrett was arguably playing better rugby than All Blacks great Dan Carter.
Carter, however, demonstrated all of his experience from more than 100 Tests to guide the All Blacks to a 20-18 win over the Springboks in the semifinals and then to a 34-17 victory in the final against the Wallabies.
"Everyone wanted us to drop Dan Carter," Hansen said. "But he had one ingredient the other blokes didn’t have, and you saw that experience come out in the big moments.
"So we have to build that experience for Richie, but we have a player in Beauden who has been the world’s best for two years, so we won’t be in any rush to shift him."
Hansen said loose forward Vaea Fifita remained in his plans for the end-of-season tour and the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Fifita was concussed during the Test series against France in June and has since struggled with his form. The 26-year-old, who has principally been a blindside flanker for the All Blacks, had also spent much of the Super Rugby season playing lock for the Hurricanes.
"If you play all your life [at lock] and then someone says ‘right, play at six’ at an even higher level than you have been playing at, it is difficult," Hansen said. "Whilst we would have liked to see him do that for the Hurricanes, it is not our team to select."