How the All Blacks are destroying their key point guard Richie Mo’unga

Mark Reason is a sports columnist for Stuff

OPINIONS: Wayne Smith called Ruahei Demant the best player in the country, because that’s what you do. Any rugby coach worth their salt will massage the ego of their No 10. That’s why Scott Robertson, who is worth a lot of salt, called Richie Mo’unga the Crusaders’ ‘Steph Curry’. Your point guard is the most important person in the team and he or she needs to feel good about themself.

Sadly it is the failure of the All Blacks to make their No 10 feel really good about himself that is the biggest oversight of the control freaks in their coaching staff and playing group. Time and time again the most talented player in the country has been hung out to dry by people who just don’t know how to get the best out of him.

It happened yet again at the weekend, this time in the draw against England, and we should no longer be surprised. In his brief time as the All Blacks first-five, Mo’unga has played with at least nine different No 12s. That is an astonishing lack of continuity in a position which thrives off familiarity with the player inside and outside.

By my reckoning the nine consists of Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape, Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea, David Havili, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jordie Barrett. There may be others. I have lost count which is pretty easy to do while this madness has gone on.

When Mo’unga first came on the scene he was dissed by then-All Blacks coach Steve Hansen as playing behind a Rolls Royce pack. Mo’unga then had to look over his shoulder at Beauden Barrett all game as the former first-five was picked at 15 and given license to wander into the 10 position.

Dan Carter, the greatest of the All Blacks 10’s, was critical of this undermining of Mo’unga on Saturday night as he and Warren Gatland explored the liberation of England’s Marcus Smith. The young Harlequins No 10 is a freakish talent, but both Gatland and Carter felt he had also been stifled internationally, in his case by having Owen Farrell alongside, just as Mo’unga had been stifled by Beaudy. Alpha males rarely coexist in perfect harmony.

Richie Mo'unga looks to break past Tom Curry of England, with Jordie Barrett in support at Twickenham.

Warren Little/Getty Images

Richie Mo’unga looks to break past Tom Curry of England, with Jordie Barrett in support at Twickenham.

Carter called Smith “the star player in the English side” and Gatland went on to point out how Farrell’s injury against New Zealand, while not removing him from the pitch, had the benefit of diminishing his authority. He noted that Smith had taken over the goalkicking and this was a help to Smith because, “As a 10 you want to control the game”.

“It’s a really good point,” said Carter before repeating that the All Blacks had suffered the same problem in their early undermining of Mo’unga. Unfortunately that problem has not gone away because the All Blacks’ brains trust continue to do unfathomably daft things like taking the goalkicking away from Mo’unga.

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Far worse than that came about after Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett had hinted that they were a combination worth developing at the end of the Rugby Championship. Next up Foster decides to pick Mo’unga with Tuivasa-Sheck against Italy. Okay, so Jordie wasn’t available, but what was the point? Why not give Stephen Perofeta the chance to play with his Blues team-mate.

The following week, Mo’unga and Jordie do a number on Wales. So what happens next? The coaches give Mo’unga a rest – there was no suggestion he wasn’t fit – against Scotland, bring Beaudy back and return Jordie to fullback. How on earth are they ever going to develop combinations if they keep chopping and changing? Sometimes I wonder whether Ian Foster or Beauden Barrett is really the man in charge.

At least Eddie Jones, who has picked up virtually the whole Premiership in his time as England coach, is giving Smith and Farrell plenty of time together. Carter, who was blessed to play so many tests with Ma’a Nonu, said of that decision: “The more time they have together, the more they’ll trust each other and the more control Marcus will have of the game.”

England's Marcus Smith makes a break against the All Blacks.

Ian Walton/AP

England’s Marcus Smith makes a break against the All Blacks.

Marcus Smith took that control against the All Blacks at the end of the match. With Farrell largely out of the way, he started playing with the “aggression” that Jones praised afterwards. Both Gatland and Carter reiterated that the injury to Farrell was probably a blessing in disguise for the young point guard.

In contrast Mo’unga seems to have to become a different person every game. Against England the coaches had decided that Jordie would come into 10 a lot and Mo’unga would play out the back. But it meant that a lot of the possession which Mo’unga got was sideways ball, when you want your best passer taking it square to the posts.

There was also a moment in the first half which emphasized Carter’s point about continuity of selection. Mo’unga was about to receive the ball inside his 22m when Jordie called for a chip ahead and charged forward. Unfortunately Jordie’s timing was off and he went too early, so Mo’unga then had to pull out of the kick and gave the worst pass I have ever seen him throw. Until you develop continuity in your combinations, there will always be such timing issues.

Beauden Barrett's decision to kick a drop goal late in the England test was criticized by Lions coach Warren Gatland.

Warren Little/Getty Images

Beauden Barrett’s decision to kick a drop goal late in the England test was criticized by Lions coach Warren Gatland.

There was an instant in the second half which again emphasized why you want your 10 to have absolute authority. The All Blacks were 22-6 up with the clock approaching 70 minutes and were under advantage for a penalty against Billy Vunipola when Beauden Barrett snapped out an instant drop goal.

It was a decision that Gatland criticized heavily after the match. Gatland wondered why, off that advantage, did the All Blacks not run down the clock for two minutes and go for the try. Carter completely agreed. They had the penalty to come back to, which was right in front, but New Zealand could have taken time out of the match, searched for extra points and had the insurance of the easy kick to come.

It may seem a small point, but it wasn’t to Gatland. He felt it cost the All Blacks victory. The game was there to be put away and a poor decision by Barrett had squandered the chance. And it is these details under these coaches which point to why the All Blacks have coughed up so many 14-point leads (against South Africa, Australia, Japan, Scotland and now England) in the previous six months.

And it will keep on happening until they put utter faith in one No 10 and pair him consistently with a nine and a 12. If that’s Mo’unga, then I’m sorry but Beaudy doesn’t start. He comes on as a star impact player and my, do the All Blacks need to improve their bench. Beaudy’s been struggling a bit as a 15, in any case, a symptom possibly of that awful concussion he suffered against Ireland last year.

There was a time in the early 1970s when Wales and the Lions had two of the great No 10s in Barry John and Phil Bennett. But Carwyn James, himself a former 10, didn’t play both of them against the All Blacks. He gave the keys of the castle to John, and even though he had a great player in Mike Gibson outside him who could also play 10, there was no doubt who was ‘king.’

Mike Catt has released Jonny Sexton for Ireland, a player who was more constricted under Joe Schmidt’s head coaching. Finn Russell, at Scotland, needs head coach Gregor Townsend to cede control in order to be at his best. Beaudy sparkled when he had Sir Wayne Smith (well, the knighthood’s not far away) as his advisor. And Mo’unga was at his best when he had Ronan O’Gara squaring him up at the Crusaders. These coaches are each former 10s themselves.

Mo’unga remains one of the greatest talents of his generation, but the All Blacks coaches could scarcely have done more to stuff him up over the previous five years. So it is time to bring a horse whisperer like a Carter or a Smith or even an O’Gara in on a full time basis. It is time to decide on a 12 and pick him through to the World Cup. It is time to give Mo’unga or Beaudy his ego back and let one of them flourish as sole monarch.

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