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Raising All Blacks: Superstar Barrett's farm life and a stint in Meath

Dairy farmer Kevin Barrett brought up five rugby-mad sons on the coast in Taranaki.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

This post is part of The42′s Facing History series, supported by Cadbury Boost. To read more, click here.

THE STORY GOES that when Kevin Barrett was interviewed on the pitch at Yarrow Stadium after the last of his 167 appearances for Taranaki, he was asked what he planned to do next.

The answer was a simple one.

“I’m gonna go breed some All Blacks.”

Barrett has been true to his word. His son Beauden, 25, has been perhaps the best player in the world in 2016, stepping into Dan Carter’s boots and pushing the All Blacks to new heights as they have extended their run of consecutive wins to 17.

Jordie, 19, has signed on to join Beauden at the Hurricanes next season and looks like he may be even better than his older brother. Jordie shone for the New Zealand U20s during the summer at inside centre, while also impressing at fullback for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup in recent weeks.

Beauden Barrett Beauden is one of the best players in the world. Source: Photosport/INPHO

Second row Scott, 22, had an excellent 2016 Super Rugby season for the Crusaders and looks like he too has the potential to play Test rugby. He may well join the Barrett contingent at the Hurricanes in the future.

Kevin Barrett has five sons and three daughters in total, and the other two sons are also fine rugby players. Back row Kane, 26, has been out of the game with concussion since early 2014 but played Super Rugby with the Blues before that.

Blake, 21, helped Coastal – a club his father was integral in creating – into the semi-finals of the Taranaki Premiership in July. The young back row still has professional ambitions.

Their cousin Neesha has captained Taranaki in the Women’s National Provincial Championship. Rugby and the Barretts simply go hand in hand.

The boys grew up on the family farm in between Pungarehu and Rahotu, around 30 minutes’ drive south of the city of New Plymouth on the North Island.

Cape Egmont Lighthouse, the westernmost point in New Zealand, is on the next road up from the Barrett residence. Mount Taranaki looms to the east, while the Tasman Sea stretches out as far as the eye can see on the other side. Fishing was part of their childhood.

The Barretts – dairy farmers – have around 200 cattle across three plots of land, one of which they bought from All Black great Graham Mourie, a native of the nearby Opunake.

Though Kevin – known by the nickname ‘Smiley’ to everyone in New Zealand rugby – doesn’t remark on it as such, the Barrett boys had pretty much the perfect upbringing to excel in rugby.

The first key was the ‘Barrett Cricket Ground’ at the back of their house, where all five Barrett boys, their three sisters, as well as the Crowleys from across the road and their cousins who also lived nearby, would spend endless hours playing rugby.

“They had some great experiences on the back lawn,” says Barrett when we meet. “That’s all they did; they just kicked balls around. There were no Playstations, we didn’t have those. It was just outside and kick it around.”

kevin1_720 Kevin Barrett on his farm near Rahotu. Source: Eoin Lúc O'Ceallaigh/The42

From the age of five, the ball barely left the Barrett boys’ hands.

“The boys learnt a lot on the back lawn themselves, just side stepping and that,” continues Barrett. “It was just skills.”

Barrett, who was a teak-tough lock and back row in his own playing days, provided a fine role model for his sons. ‘Smiley’ is a legend of Taranaki rugby – his face looks out from the 100-caps wall at Yarrow Stadium – and he played two seasons of Super Rugby.

The game had turned professional and Barrett was able to manage to juggle the farm, which he inherited from his father, at the same time as featuring for the Hurricanes in 1997 and 1998 – playing 15 times in total.

“It was good back then because it was only the first two years of Super Rugby and from here to Wellington is a four-hour drive for me,” says Barrett, a tall, imposing figure with big hands that are engrained with the mud of hard work.

“We would always assemble on a Wednesday back then for a Saturday game, so that was great and I could spend three days at home. The year after that, they moved everyone down [full-time], so I couldn’t take six country kids into the city!”

The Barrett boys attended Pungarehu School for their primary education, where they first played the game along with the 80 other students. Again, Barrett himself doesn’t see it as anything out of the ordinary, but the skills focus was central at that stage.

“We said it to all the boys in school, ‘forget your right foot now. Start kicking on your left foot.’

“‘As soon as you can kick as far and accurate on your left foot, well then go back to your right.’ The same with passing, that was just teaching the boys skills at school. That’s why we did so well.”

Indeed, with Barrett’s brother Philip also coaching, Pungarehu had great success in the McLeod Shield competition for Taranaki’s primary schools. With Kane and Beauden leading the way, the rugby bug was well and truly installed in the Barrett boys.

New Zealand v Ireland - 2016 Rugby Union Under 20's World Championship - City Academy Stadium Jordie impressed during June's World Rugby U20 Championship. Source: David Davies

A twist in the tale landed them in Ireland playing Gaelic football.

Barrett and his wife Robyn had been keen on getting some overseas experience for several years, with the death of his younger brother in a car crash resulting in cancelling an initial plan to shift the family to Italy.

The Barrett family roots are Irish. Kevin’s grandparents were born in New Zealand, but their parents were Irish and that was at the back of his mind when an opportunity arose late in 1999.

One of the Rahotu locals knew Meath man Michael Murphy “from a few farming trips” and alerted Barrett to the fact that he needed a farm manager over in Ireland.

“I said, ‘Robyn, will we go over and have a look?’” recalls Barrett. “We just said ‘let’s go.’ We went from the middle of summer here to the shortest day over there. We took the fives boys and little Jenna over, she was 18 months.”

While the bedding-in period wasn’t easy, nor the logistics of bringing a big family across the world, the Barretts ended up loving their 15 months in Oldcastle.

“It’s just the people are very similar to here, there was great craic. You just get on with anyone and it was good with the school.

“I was out and about working on the farm, of course, and I could mix and mingle with the locals. It was quite hard for Robyn at the start until she got active in the school. The first three weeks or month was hard for her, but the kids blended in quite quickly.”

The boys enrolled at St. Fiach’s National School in Ballinacree, where the nine-year-old Kane and eight-year-old Beauden took to the local sport impressively, as well as with St. Brigid’s club.

“Kane, Beaudy and Scotty were straight into school,” says Barrett. “The first day, they turned up to school in their bare feet and they got some looks. Everyone thought, ‘these poor New Zealand boys without shoes on,’ but that’s what we do. They were sloshing around in the snow, it was quite funny.

“The boys played GAA, Beauden and Kane did. It was good, that was all that was on offer in Ballinacree and it was a football year.”

IMG_4855 Coastal Rugby Club. Source: The42

That GAA experience has something to do with Beauden’s incredible ability to land cross-field kicks in his wings’ hands?

“I have no doubt, you can claim fame to that!”

While the young Barretts enjoyed the change of scenery, and the mashed potatoes, their father embedded himself in life at Buccaneers RFC in Athlone, at a time when the All-Ireland League was still a front and centre.

The boys also integrated into the club as their own rugby development continued.

“It was great old craic down there,” says Barrett of his days at Dubarry Park. “You were playing against international players so it was great, it was like back here. They all played club rugby and then went on to play for Leinster and Munster, etc.

“That’s what it was like here in New Zealand. In provincial rugby, you always played against All Blacks and now it’s sad. The All Blacks don’t play and it’s lost a lot of spice, you don’t get the crowds to the games. It’s a shame really.”

Back in New Zealand in 2001, the Barrett boys began to impress on the rugby pitches, although they also showed a keen interest in golf, which is maintained to this day – Beauden and Jordie played together in Christchurch the week of the All Blacks’ Test against South Africa at AMI Stadium.

Their father reflects warmly on those early days of rugby madness.

“Kane and Beauden always played together because there was only a year between them. Scotty was on his own and Jordie and Blake were together. We had three teams to follow.

“It was three games and the usual story in the morning – get up and milk the cows at half past five, then drive half an hour to New Plymouth or five minutes down the road to Rahotu, or an hour to Hawera, wherever the boys played.

“It was always full on. Rob would take two boys sometimes and I’d take another two in another direction.”

Kane blazed a trail, shining at secondary schools’ level in Francis Douglas Memorial College, the same school all five sons attended. Other famous rugby alumni from the New Plymouth institution include Conrad Smith and ex-All Blacks coach John Mitchell.

Beauden Barrett Beauden made his debut against Ireland in 2012. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Kane played two years for the New Zealand Schools side, with Beauden and Scott following in his footsteps in the years that followed.

Interestingly, Beauden – who is remembered as a “skinny white kid” in Taranaki – wasn’t a starter when he made the national schools squad.

“A lot of the island boys peak early and the European boys are smaller, so they don’t mature until they’re 21, 22, even 23,” says his father, before jokingly explaining where the searing pace Beauden and Jordi possess came from.

“I’ve got big boots so that probably helped them run. They just had to run faster than me!”

Beauden went on to play for New Zealand U20s, having broken into the Taranaki set-up like Kane before him. A Super Rugby contract with the Hurricanes followed for ‘Beaudy,’ then an All Blacks debut in 2012 against Ireland, then international stardom.

The hype around Jordie in New Zealand is growing all the time – with the Hurricanes fighting off the other Kiwi franchises for his signature – and Scott has seen his profile grow with achievement.

“The boys are just country boys, they just fit in,” says Kevin when the topic of keeping his sons grounded comes up. “We’re all pretty laidback here on the coast.

“It’s all there for them, young kids these days. You’ve just got to hone your skills and you’ll get picked up. It’s as simple as that. A lot of coaches now will pick the players on character. You can teach them skills and that’s how we brought the boys up.”

Beauden and his brothers still return home as often as they can, while Kane and Blake live close to the family farm. Jordie has been based in Christchurch with Scott, playing Mitre 10 Cup rugby with Canterbury while studying in Lincoln University.

Scott Barrett scores a try Scott has 22 Super Rugby appearances under his belt. Source: Photosport/John Davidson/INPHO

But the sights of the lighthouse, the cows and the sea always bring them back. They do their best to show they haven’t turned into pampered rugby professionals, although Kevin still does most of the hard graft.

“Jordie was home after the Manawatu game for a couple of days,” he says. “He had full intentions of feeding the calves, but I had fed them before he got out of bed. It was rest and recovery.

“I always say to the boys I did my recovery walking up and down the pit in the morning at half past five milking cows… The professional era now.”

Barrett – who was still togging out for Coastal’s seconds as recently as 2011 –  and Robyn haven’t quite been able to switch off, even with the boys all now moved out. Their three daughters - Jenna, Zara and Ella – keep them busy with swimming, surfing and dancing.

Rugby remains a dominant part of their life, however, and Kevin is excited by the prospect of the November Tests. Himself and Robyn won’t make it over to Chicago for the first clash with Ireland, but they have a tour planned for the Dublin fixture two weeks later.

“I was over there in 2013 and it was great,” says Barrett. “I thought the Irish were going to make history and I honestly felt sorry for them. [If] Johnny [Sexton] had kicked that goal, they would have won. Who knows this year? You never know.

“The boys could have an off day and Ireland could get up and win. We’ll be over, we’ll have a little touring party and get around to see some farms. We love touring in Ireland, we know a lot of people there.”

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Murray Kinsella

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