A gamble or a gain? All Blacks could hand Test start to 20-year-old Barrett

The Lions reckon Steve Hansen will pick the Hurricanes man at fullback.

Murray Kinsella reports from Queenstown

STEVE HANSEN ENJOYED telling the world about the call-ups of the ‘geography six’ before the tourists could make any announcement, but Warren Gatland thinks he’s got some good inside information this week.

The Lions are firmly of the belief that 20-year-old Jordie Barrett will be in the 15 shirt when Hansen names his All Blacks team for the final Test at 6pm Irish time on Wednesday evening.

Jordie Barrett Barrett played against the Lions for the Hurricanes last week. Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO / Grant Down/INPHO

Barrett, the younger brother of All Blacks out-half Beauden, only made his Test debut last month against Samoa but the Lions have been preparing with the expectation that the 6’5″ Hurricanes youngster will be at fullback on Saturday in Eden Park.

What an occasion it would be for the youngest of the trio of Barrett All Blacks to make his first start in a Test match, although many will view it as a big gamble from Hansen if it does come to pass.

Barrett has, of course, been sensational this year in Super Rugby, with his connection with Beauden helping the Hurricanes to tear defences apart at times.

Jordie has passing and kick-passing skills in abundance, real distance on his tactical kicking from hand, a strong aerial game and a robustness in contact thanks to his large frame, which already holds around 97kg of mass.

He has seven tries in his first season of Super Rugby, while he’s the third most regular offloader in the competition with 23 so far.

Perhaps as relevant is the fact that Jordie is considered a better place-kicker than Beauden, having taken the Hurricanes’ tee ahead of of him on many occasions in Super Rugby this season.

Jordie’s percentage off the tee in Super Rugby this season has been around 80%, while he was also excellent on place-kicking duties for Canterbury in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup-winning campaign.

Place-kicking is an issue for the All Blacks after Beauden’s three missed penalties last weekend in Wellington, those nine missed points proving crucial as the Lions came back to win 24-21 and level the series.

Jordie, Scott and Beauden Barrett with their parents Kevin and Robyn Barrett Jordie, Kevin, Scott, Robyn and Beauden Barrett after last month's win over Samoa. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Barrett’s goal-kicking percentage across all of his 52 All Blacks Tests is just over 70%, while he has been off form in Super Rugby this season with a return rate of under 60%.

Those raw percentages don’t take into account the difficulty of each kick, of course, but the belief among those who know both players well is that Jordie is the better place-kicker.

Even still, handing him that responsibility on what might be his first start would be a big call from the All Blacks.

Kicking is certainly not the only reason that the All Blacks look set to pick Jordie at fullback and he is a very composed player, but the Lions will likely see the possible selection as an opportunity for them to apply pressure.

Barrett has been groomed by the All Blacks, travelling with them on last November’s Northern Hemisphere tour as an ‘apprentice,’ but Saturday would naturally be a huge test for a player who was eligible for the World Rugby U20 Championship this summer.

Brought up in Taranaki by the redoubtable Kevin and Robyn Barrett, Jordie is the youngest of five rugby-playing brothers.

26-year-old Beauden beat a path for the family in terms of All Blacks honours, with 23-year-old lock Scott following him last year. Eldest brother Kane is a former Super Rugby player with the Blues, while back row Blake plays rugby with the Barretts’ local club, Coastal.

Kevin, known to all as ‘Smiley,’ is rugby royalty in New Zealand and certainly there are few 20-year-olds as well prepared as Jordie to make an immediate impact on Test rugby.

Jordie Barrett Barrett may have a big burden on his shoulders on Saturday. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

And yet, this would still be a rookie player making his first international start in the biggest Test match in recent All Blacks history.

Hansen’s hand has perhaps been forced by a few factors, mainly the concussion problems being suffered by key leader and fullback Ben Smith, but Gatland and the Lions would see it as the decision of a man under pressure.

There are injury problems for the All Blacks in midfield too – where they’ve been shorn of the influential Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams – and it might be that we see another player making his first Test start there on Saturday.

Ngani Laumape is set to be named in the midfield for the deciding Test, having made his debut off the bench last weekend in Wellington.

The Hurricanes man is sensational in terms of his ball-carrying but he made two big errors in the second Test defeat, being exposed defensively for Conor Murray’s try and then knocking the ball on just before the Lions built to their match-winning penalty.

Hansen, of course, knows these players and their temperaments better than most and it would be little surprise to see them have highly-positive impacts on the game if they are selected.

The more conservative approach would be to keep Israel Dagg at fullback and select the recalled 23-cap Malakai Fekitoa to start in midfield, but Hansen looks likely to go with the new faces instead.

For the Lions, they would see these selections as possible opportunities for them to heap the pressure on at Eden Park.

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