It’s intriguing that, no matter how well Richie Mo’unga plays in Super Rugby, he has a legion of critics who do not rate his work for the All Blacks and are desperate to see Beauden Barrett restored to the test No 10 jersey.
Mo’unga was the best No 10 in the land before Sunday’s brilliant individual performance against the Blues. His 28 points, pinpoint goal-kicking, game-breaking try and try-saving tackle were effectively the difference in a contest between two sides who each scored four tries.
There was loose talk that he had made a slow start to Super Rugby Aotearoa. If you call rustiness on opening night against the Highlanders a slow start, then he’s guilty as charged. Who wants to peak in February, anyhow? Richie McCaw never did.
But he now has 49 points from four outings at over 12 points a match and has strung together two straight man of the match displays. This is a two-time winner of the NZ Super Rugby Player of the Year we’re talking about.
Like Ardie Savea, Mo’unga receives often only grudging praise for his play for the All Blacks. Hell, some reckon he has only played with authority in one big test, the 43-5 shellacking of the Wallabies in Sydney last October, of his 22 internationals. They have amnesia, because he was very good two weeks before that at Eden Park when Barrett ran with potency from the back. He has played well in most of his tests, in fact. Sure, he was not at his best in the Rugby World Cup semifinal reverse to England, but which No 10 was going to play front-foot rugby when the pack was being dissected?
There are those who cannot countenance the two-playmaker tactic employed since 2019 by Ian Foster. There was always a certain amount of logic behind the strategy. Perhaps it just needs more time. But Barrett is not in New Zealand, he’s in Japan chasing the yen. He may have to take his chance and wear the 15 or 22 black jersey upon his return.
Mo’unga, meanwhile, continues to exert a dominance on Super Rugby Aotearoa that we have not seen from a Kiwi No 10 since Carlos Spencer was cutting those shapes way back in 2003 for the Blues. The man himself says he loves the pressure and Sunday’s clash at Eden Park was a dress rehearsal for the final, the closest you’ll get to test footy.
He has the balance, the accuracy, the skill and the tactical nous to run the ship, to run a game. Scott Robertson must shake his head that Mo’unga does not get the widespread plaudits he merits. We are not going to say he will be as good as the recently retired Dan Carter but he soon may leapfrog Carter and Andrew Mehrtens as the greatest ever Crusaders No 10.
Mo’unga must feel like Savea, who plays with panache and skill for the Hurricanes and the All Blacks and is the most dynamic forward in the country. But some of Savea’s critics, of which there are many, would boo Santa Claus. They say he’s not big enough to be a consistent, physical force in the All Blacks. False. He’s about two kilos lighter than Sam Cane. They say he gets rag-dolled or over-run physically in the tighter stuff. False.
Beauden Barrett is one of the great attacking footballers, a multi-skilled match-winner with the ability to play at the back or in the driver’s seat. Yet Mo’unga can do virtually all that Barrett can do, with a touch less pace. But it seems that, even if he scores a thousand points for the Crusaders in the next few years, unless he wins a Rugby World Cup with the 10 on his back, he will continue to have his carping critics.
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