All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett talks family, fortune and the future in this exclusive interview with Tom English
Beauden Barrett vows to take his game to another level
Before we get to the serious business of the All Blacks, and the hunt for another World Cup, Beauden Barrett – the planet’s pre-eminent rugby player – is talking about home. In his mind’s eye he’s back in the days of innocence, just a kid kicking about the rivers and farmlands between Pungarehu and Rahotu, half an hour south of New Plymouth in New Zealand’s north island.
“Growing up in the country, we were faced with a lot of things,” Barrett says. “Well, not faced exactly. We chose to do a lot of things. A lot of silly things. A lot of things that we absolutely loved doing. Things that if they happened today health and safety might have us in deep trouble over.
“Climbing up trees that are I don’t know how many storeys high. Driving motorbikes on the farm and going up these huge hills with the constant fear of falling off and really hurting yourself. Floating down stormy rivers in big rapids on a blown-up tractor tyre with my brothers and the fear of being flicked over onto a rock and going underwater.
“That’s blackwater rafting we’re talking about. We live near the mountains in Taranaki and when it rains heavily up in those mountains, then big, big angry rivers are formed and we saw that as an opportunity to get out there and float.”
Talking to Barrett, you get the impression sometimes that he’d rather chat about those carefree days of his youth than the sustained brilliance of his adulthood with the Hurricanes, the All Blacks, the back-to-back World Rugby Player of the Year titles in 2016 and 2017 – Barrett and Richie McCaw are the only men in history to have retained the crown.
He appreciates everything he has. In his gentle way of speaking, time and again he’ll say how fortunate he is to be where he is, how lucky he was to have the start in life that he had with his four brothers and his three sisters and his mum and his dad and his rural upbringing. The secret to Barrett? He always brings you back to his formative years. The perfect childhood? If such a thing exists, then he had it.
“My earliest memories are playing for Rahotu junior club when I was six years old and we’d play at nine in the morning and it would still be frosty and freezing cold,” he says. “Playing in those icy conditions made me love it even more. Playing in bare feet and if there was mud then all the better because you could slide around and really enjoy yourself. The grubbier the better.
“One of the things I miss is being able to kick a spiral in bare feet in a match. It was always easier to kick them in bare feet than it is in boots. It’s changed in the last four or five years but we used to play in bare feet up until the age of about ten, for whatever reason, and it was awesome because you felt really quick. We didn’t need, or want, fancy boots in those days.
“I was playing with my older brother Kane and Dad (the legend that is Kevin, otherwise known as Smiley) was our coach. As a kid, all I wanted to do was play for Taranaki because Dad played for Taranaki and I grew up watching so many of his games. It was such a big moment for the province every time Taranaki played. The thrill of going to see him run out is clear as day, even though I was only a child.
“Dad was a very physical, uncompromising player with a huge, huge work ethic. A lock and a grafter. He played more than 160 games for Taranaki. Often he would come off the field with stitches in his face and cut eyes, blood all over him.
“No 10s were Dad’s favourites. I’d hate to think what he would have done to me if I’d come up against him”
“He wasn’t afraid to really rip into it. We used to see all the ruck marks on his back and his legs when he jumped in the shower. He was very different to me, being a fancy fly-half. I think Scott (one of Barrett’s younger brothers) takes after him a bit more. No 10s were Dad’s favourites. I’d hate to think what he would have done to me if I’d come up against him.”
In 1996, Smiley won the Ranfurly Shield with Taranaki against an illustrious Auckland side. It was a 42-39 thriller and the footage that exists shows how much it meant. The Taranaki boys and their fans were beside themselves with joy.
“I was only young but I remember it so well. We were lucky enough to bring the Shield back to the house and it was put in the cowshed and all the local people came around to share the moment, which was pretty amazing. My memory is not the best but moments like that stick out. It was quite inspirational.”
In 1999, his mum, Robyn, and his dad decided they wanted to see a bit of the world. They had six of their eight kids at the time, the youngest being little Jenna at only 18 months old, but still they wanted to explore. They heard of a job as farm manager in County Meath in the Republic of Ireland – and went for it. They spent 15 blissful months in the town of Oldcastle and they remain friends with the locals to this day.
“At breaktime on our very first morning at primary school, we were playing with a round ball. Soccer, it was. I remember the three of us Barrett boys – Scott, Kane and I – ripped our shoes off and started playing in bare feet. Next thing, the school principal came out and told us off and we couldn’t believe it. We didn’t know what we’d done wrong. We didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to be running around in no shoes in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. It was a shock to the system. Slippers in the classroom and shoes to school. Up until then we never wore shoes.
“You know, I think about it now and how ambitious and fearless my mum and dad were back then. Six kids and off we went to other side of the world. I mean, Dad had ancestors from Ireland. His great grandparents were born there, but that was a seriously big call to make with such a young family. And I’m so, so glad they made it. They managed a dairy farm and while there we played a bit of rugby and a lot of Gaelic football. We made lifetime friendships. We’ve stayed in touch with people. It’s our second home.”
The Barretts returned to New Zealand and a dynasty began to form. Smiley and Robyn doubled up as a taxi service for their young rugby-playing sons. Kane and Beauden were in one team, Scott being a little younger was in another, Jordie and Blake being younger again were in a third age group. They would go here and there, attempting to follow three sides at once.
“I wasn’t a superstar at school. I was hoping to make something of rugby, but I didn’t ever think I was going to go all the way”
“I would say that the most enjoyable rugby I’ve ever played was at secondary school, because we were playing with our best mates and were so proud to be in the team. And we all wanted to be Conrad Smith because Conrad Smith was carving the way for us in Taranaki as a skinny white boy playing for the All Blacks. I was a skinny white boy, too, but I never thought I’d make it to the All Blacks. I was hoping to make something of rugby, but I didn’t ever think I was going to go all the way.
“I wasn’t a superstar at school. There were a couple of us in the back-line for our first XV team and it’s fair to say that we threw the ball around and enjoyed ourselves. By no means were we standouts. We were just a modest bunch of rugby players. We were just kids having fun.”
Even when he became an All Black, he wasn’t sure how long he’d last. He made his debut in a 60-0 annihilation of his home from home, Ireland, in Hamilton in 2012. “But I never thought, ‘Right, I’ve made it now’. There were guys who I had looked up to for years – Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden – so it took a lot of work on my self-belief to really accept that I could stay there and push on.
“Even in 2015, at the World Cup in England, I was in awe of DC. The way he bounced back from injury and criticism, all the doubters he had and then to play out of his skin in the semi-final and final was just unreal. He was there when we needed him. Absolutely awesome. It was the perfect end to his All Black career.”
Barrett came on as a substitute in that final, scored a try and never looked back. He has been other-worldly ever since, pretty much; a consummate player, one of the greatest we have ever seen.
“In New Zealand we’re never satisfied. I want to become a better player, I want to take it to another level”
“People ask me do I have unfulfilled ambitions. Of course I do. In New Zealand we’re never satisfied. I want to become a better player, I want to take it to another level. I think I can do it. That excites me. I’m not sitting back and taking it easy. There’s a World Cup around the corner.
“Yeah, there’s pressure and we have to deal with that. We know we have a target on us but it’s a challenge we all embrace.”
Can he see himself following the path of the great man, Carter, and moving to Europe at some stage?
“If I get to an age, and a place, where I no longer have the drive or the desire to be an All Black and I feel it’s time to leave because there are younger and better guys who need their chance to wear that jersey, then, yep, sure. But right at the moment, I’m fresh, I’m still young and I want to be around. My management has always got an open mind. We understand the big picture. There’s more to it than this game of rugby. There’s a thing called life as well.
“It’s very important to balance the work-life thing. I have ways to switch off and decompress and I think that’s crucial. Golf is part of that. Yoga is part of it. Walking the dogs. Keeping in contact with friends and family. Doing business stuff keeps my mind stimulated. We’ve all got to think of life after footy, so it’s important to start now.
“You can’t live in this intense world 24 hours a day. If rugby consumes your life 100% you’re probably going to burn out in no time. It’s about really enjoying the moment and making the most of it, and also understanding that there is more to me than just Beauden Barrett the rugby player. There’s Beauden Barrett the son, the fiancée, the brother, the friend. That bigger picture is important. You have to keep a perspective on things.”
Barrett says that it is his mum who is the chronicler-in-chief of her sons’ rugby careers. Locked away securely on the family farm are some priceless mementoes: Beauden’s Taranaki, Hurricanes and All Blacks jerseys and some of the jerseys “of the great international players I’ve swapped with”. He adds: “Mum has all sorts of things locked away. She’s getting a bit of a museum going.”
Perhaps a hall of fame would be a better description. Or a pantheon. If there is such a thing in New Zealand rugby, even at the age of 27, Beauden Barrett is already there.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of Rugby World.
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