Scott Barrett into All Blacks backrow for England semifinal
TOKYO (AP) — The All Blacks play to a tough crowd, with their ratings either a pass or fail.
Nothing short of an All Blacks victory goes down well in New Zealand.
That kind of pressure could compound anxiety ahead of the Rugby World Cup semifinal against England. But skipper Keiran Read says he and his team are used to it, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Of course, people are going to say we’ve failed if we don’t win, but the nature of the All Blacks and the scrutiny we have, the expectation is to win,” Read said. “England are good enough to win, and that’s all we’re focusing on.”
New Zealand hasn’t lost a Rugby World Cup game since the quarterfinals in 2007, winning the titles in 2011 and ’15 and now getting within one victory of a third straight final.
England coach Eddie Jones, an Australian, has spent this week hyping up the All Blacks aura and the expectations that brings, and claiming his team — eliminated in the group stage four years ago — doesn’t stand a chance.
His All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen isn’t buying into it.
“We’re under pressure all the time. I think early in our history, we ran away from it so it was chasing us down the street,” Hansen said. “But these days, we’ve had to acknowledge it’s there; now we’re expected to win every game whether it’s quarterfinal, semifinal or just an ordinary test match.
“But it would be naive to think that there’s not pressure on both sides and, when you can publicly acknowledge that it’s on you, then there’s an awareness — and that same pressure’s running down the same street he (Jones) is on.”
Hansen made only one tactical change to his starting lineup, bringing Scott Barrett onto the blindside flank to add some height and bulk and an extra lineout option.
Barrett replaced Sam Cane at halftime in New Zealand’s 46-14 quarterfinal win over Ireland last weekend, with Ardie Savea switching roles to play on the openside. That’s how the backrow will start on Saturday, with Read recovering from calf muscle soreness to take his place at No. 8.
“The team is exactly where we want to be, mentally and physically,” Hansen said.
Barrett has never started a test in the backrow, although he has gone on as a replacement flanker eight times and once as a No. 8. He’ll no doubt get some advice from his father Kevin Barrett, a backrower who played provincial rugby and raised three All Blacks on his farm.
Scott, or ‘Scooter,’ Barrett joins his older brother, fullback Beauden, in the starting XV. They’re also rooming together this week. Their younger brother, Jordie, is on the reserves bench.
“It’s great to room with him,” Beauden Barrett said. “He’s clearly got his rugby head on because the other night he was sleep-talking and was calling out lineout moves. That was going through his head, that’s for sure.”
The All Blacks topped Pool B, including a win over South Africa, and have been steadily building momentum in their bid for a third consecutive title.
Hansen said Cane’s move to the reserves was more related to game strategy than form and “we’ve made some decisions around how we want to play, and we’ve made that change because of it.”
Of Scott Barrett, Hansen added: “Obvious thing, he’s a lineout forward. He’s a ball carrier … enhances our ball-carrying ability.”
Hansen also echoed comments made by Jones last weekend about rugby now being more than a 15-man starting side.
“The bench is so important in today’s game … we always talk about 23,” Hansen said. “You need 23 to get the job done. There’s still a thought process where the best players always start. That’s not always the case. Some guys are better finishers than starters. We’re fortunate we’ve got some big hitters on the bench. They’ll get a great opportunity.”
Read missed a training session earlier in the week but said it was just precautionary. Since then, he and Savea have been doing some extra work with Scott Barrett, who can play as a lock or a loose forward.
“He’s going to add something slightly different for us in the loose forwards and certainly it’s been pretty impressive what he’s been doing,” Read said. “He’s certainly going to be physical, he’s great in lineouts and defensively. He’s someone who, every time he’s been on the field for us, has done a great job.”