The All Blacks selectors have a difficult choice to make at first-five for this weekend’s highly-anticipated rematch against Ireland in Dublin.
Beauden Barrett’s been the first-choice number ten for most of the season while Aaron Cruden's put his name in the mix with a solid outing against Italy.
So who should get the nod based on form, fitness, and goal-kicking?
Beauden Barrett has taken his game to another level this year with both the Hurricanes and the All Blacks. The 25-year-old’s speed off the mark makes him one of the best attacking weapons in World Rugby while his general kicking game has also improved this season. His form against Wales and in the Rugby Championship was incredible, but he’s struggled to match that in recent Tests.
It’s been an up and down year for Aaron Cruden both with the Chiefs and the All Blacks. He started the international year as the first-choice first-five, but that only lasted two tests against Wales. The 27 year-old was assured against Italy at the weekend though, and is always a safe option having never lost a Test in 25 starts while Barrett has lost two Test matches starting at first-five.
It appears winning the Super Rugby title and playing in eleven test matches this year is starting to take a toll on Barrett. He was off his game when he played against the Wallabies in the world record 18th consecutive test win at Eden Park with an ear infection, and again looked below his best in the loss to Ireland. His rest for the Italian test in Rome was sorely needed.
Cruden came back from a devastating knee injury last year only to suffer a neck injury in the second test against Wales, and then a niggling groin injury saw him sit out a large part of the Rugby Championship. The man from Manawatu is a resilient character though, and he seems to return stronger and fitter each time he’s knocked down.
Trying to predict how Barrett will goal-kick seems to be harder than picking the winning Lotto numbers. Sometimes he looks like one of the best in the world, but the statistics say that his 51 successful shots from 78 attempts at 65.4 percent for the All Blacks this year make him one of, if not the worst kicker in international rugby.
Cruden didn’t kick a lot for the Chiefs this season, largely due to the niggling groin injury, and until his perfect 7 from 7 against Italy, had only nailed 12 of his 19 attempts for the All Blacks this year at a percentage of just 63.2 and is only rated higher than three other players, including Barrett, on the goalkickers.co.za website.
So when you weigh everything up, you’ve got to ask yourself the question: who out of Cruden or Barrett will give you the best chance of beating Ireland in Dublin this weekend?
Goalkicking will be important in front of the quiet Irish fans at Aviva Stadium, but a refreshed Beauden Barrett is my pick to start with Aaron Cruden on the bench.
What would you do?
All images courtesy of Getty