Star All Blacks playmaker Beauden Barrett has called on rugby’s governing body to sort out the code’s latest rule crisis so players can challenge for high balls with a clear understanding of what is legal and what is not.
On the eve of the year’s first Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney, Barrett told AFR Weekend that aerial contests were a vital part of the game but a series of contradictory decisions had left players and referees unsure of where they stand.
“World Rugby just needs to front foot it,” he said. “There needs to be a rule change, there obviously does. Something so that the refs feel comfortable to make a decision on the field and the players know what they can and can’t do.
“Ultimately that’s where we need to get to, clarity and certainty.”
Barrett, the World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017, said Wallaby fullback Israel Folau’s controversial yellow card against Ireland was harsh.
“We need a contest. It’s a great part of the game. You want to encourage athleticism and you want to encourage it as a tactic, too. You can understand the rule change with the tackle height having to come down below the shoulders, but when it’s regarding a catch we still need that in the game.”
In June Barrett was forced off with concussion in the second test of New Zealand’s series against France after being taken out while contesting a high ball. In that incident, Barrett landed on his head after his legs were hit while he was well off the ground. French fullback Benjamin Fall was sent off but was later cleared by World Rugby. Barrett didn’t play for several weeks as a result of the concussion.
Notwithstanding his own experience, Barrett is adamant the rules should be adjusted to encourage the aerial contest, not outlaw it.
“We choose to play rugby and we understand that it’s a physical game, so as players you have to take the good with the bad at times.
“I do hope that no one breaks their neck from a fall like that. But as players we just want a contest and to have a crack at it.”
Barrett and brothers Scott and Jordie became the first trio of brothers to start a rugby international during the series against France, when several regular All Blacks were unavailable. Loose forward Scott will start on the bench in Sydney, while centre Jordie is also in the touring party.
The eldest Barrett brother, Kane, was himself forced to retire from rugby after suffering a severe concussion when hit with an elbow while training with the Auckland Blues in 2014.
Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup encounter at ANZ Stadium doubles as the opener for this year’s Rugby Championship, which includes South Africa and Argentina. It will also be the first time women’s rugby has shared the international stage with the men, with the Wallaroos taking on the Silver Ferns in a curtainraiser kicking off at 5.15pm.
Australia hasn’t won the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. But this year, coach Michael Cheika’s third in charge, is widely seen as the Wallabies’ best chance of ending that era of pain.
To do so, however, will require overcoming the world champions, hot favourites (Australia is paying $4.10 to NZ’s $1.24) and an imposing run of form.
The Wallabies stunned the All Blacks 23-18 in Brisbane last October for their first win in the fixture since 2015. But New Zealand have only lost one of their last 13 tests (against the British & Irish Lions). For his part, Barrett has played 12 against Australia for 10 wins, 1 draw and that single loss.
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle will be cheering on the Wallabies as loudly as anyone, despite having lived most of her life in New Zealand. The embattled code needs the Wallabies to be competitive to get a much-needed boost in both interest and finances.
Castle said a surge in ticket sales this week would put the expected crowd well above last year’s record-low of less than 54,000. “We’ve had a really good spike over the last three or four days and we’re looking to head to that 65,000 mark, which we’ll be really pleased with,” she said.