Since the end of the Australia vs Ireland summer series, there have been many debates between rugby fans and pundits asking who is the best fly-half in world rugby today. Typically there are two candidates, Jonathan Sexton and Beauden Barrett. While everybody likes this idea of the best number 10 in the Northern Hemisphere vs the best in the Southern Hemisphere, I don’t think there is much of an argument to be had. People talk about Sexton’s game management, how he excels under pressure, how important he is to the Irish set-up and how much of a better goal kicker he is compared to Barrett. However, with two world rugby player of the year awards in consecutive years and a rugby world cup medal, it’s hard to deny that Barret is the best fly-half in the world, if not the best rugby player currently playing.
So enough with the Barrett vs Sexton arguments for now. Rather, let’s focus on an argument that is sure to split kiwis and rugby fans alike, who is/has been New Zealand’s best first five-eighth? While I recognise the “magician” that was Carlos Spencer, I think everyone can agree that there are two outstanding candidates that can take this title, Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett. Similar to Barrett, Carter has always been compared to his northern hemisphere counterpart, Jonny Wilkinson, in terms of who has been the best fly-half in the world to grace a rugby pitch. However, similar to what I stated above about the Sexton argument, the title usually falls in the hands of the southern contender.
With that settled, Carter v Barrett, how do we start to compare these two phenomenal players? Let’s start with a history lesson. 2005, the British and Irish Lions have a series to save with the All Blacks winning the 1st test. Unfortunately, for the Lions, that night was the same night that Dan Carter decided to write himself in the history books by having the most complete performance a 10 could have. Out of the 48 points New Zealand scored in the 2nd test, 33 of them belonged to Dan Carter. Whenever there is talk of Carter’s legacy or the best performance a rugby player has ever had, that display in the second Lions’ test is always mentioned. Fast forward to 2018, and we witness for the first time in international rugby, a fly-half scoring four tries in a test match. Barrett’s performance against Australia in their 2nd test in 2018, will be in the highlight reel at his ceremony when he is being inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame. In fact, there are many performances, both in Super Rugby and test level, that will be on Barrett’s highlight reel. However, one can look over the career of Dan Carter and point to numerous matches were critics would rate Carter’s performance a 9/10 in the newspapers.
Therefore, instead of indulging ourselves with the argument over who’s highlight reel would look more impressing, it is a better use of our time to do some number-crunching. First of all, let’s look at the winning percentages for both men. Carter’s winning percentage for New Zealand is 88.4%, while Barret’s is 90.91%. Both very high winning percentages, but don’t tell much about the individual for two reasons. The first reason is that the winning percentage reflects the team’s performance, and not their number 10, no matter how critical they can be to the outcome. The second reason, is that the winning percentage can depend on the opposition. In recent years, it can be argued that the opposition New Zealand face currently within the rugby championship is not as strong as it had been in the last decade. Therefore, giving Barrett an unfair advantage over Carter. So then we can revert to looking at how many points each of them have scored at Test level. Carter has racked up 1598 points in his career, making him the all time points scorer in world rugby. Barret, on the other hand, has 525 points in his 66 caps. Despite having 30 tries to his name, five more than Dan Carter at the end of his career, it seems Barrett will never surpass Carter’s record for scoring the most points in world rugby. This is where the numbers begin to tell a story.
We can all make speculative points that Carter could control a game better while Barrett’s speed and running capability is a danger to any defence. But we must also remember that so many aspects of the game have changed in the last decade. However, one aspect that hasn’t really changed is goal-kicking. Considering all of Barrett’s attributes, his achilles heel is his goal-kicking. In 2016, Barrett was rated the worst goal kicker in international rugby by the website goalkickers.co.za. In 2017, the draw in the Lions test series largely came down to Sonny Bill Williams’ red card, the Lions’ excellent blitz defense and Barrett’s poor kicking performance in the 2nd test. And again, the 1st test against South Africa in 2018, Barrett only kicking 2 from 6 opportunities led to the All Blacks first defeat to the Springboks since 2014. On the other hand, according to goalkickers.co.za, Carter had the 4th highest kicking percentage in the 2015 World Cup.
Being a component goal kicker is extremely critical to a team’s success, especially at international rugby. I believe that if it was Dan Carter on the pitch against the Springboks yesterday, the All Blacks would have won that match. And I believe the same with the 2nd test in the 2017 Lions series, despite Williams being sent off.
I believe this is what separates Carter and Barrett ultimately. Both player’s individual performances have won the All Blacks matches. However, have you ever been able to look at Dan Carter after any loss and say that it was his fault for the All Blacks losing that game? I can’t. However, could the same be said for Beauden Barrett? Perhaps not. As we seen yesterday, in the final minutes of the match, a call was made to go for the try line and not the drop goal. You would think that if it was Carter, Sexton or Wilkinson wearing the number 10 jersey, they would have slotted a drop goal as they have done in the past in those same crucial moments. Nevertheless, Barrett still has plenty of time in the black jersey and I am sure we will be treated to insane bits of skill that are out of this world. However, for his all-round game and lack of glaring obvious weaknesses throughout his career, Carter is still the G.O.A.T when it comes to rugby fly-halfs.
P.S Not written by a Beauden Barrett hater.
Written by James O’Connor – 17/09/18