LONDON — Richie Mo’unga’s arrival as the anointed All Blacks playmaker is tinged with regret. Just as he settles into the responsibility of owning Ian Foster’s resurgent team, Mo’unga is preparing to relinquish that coveted role in the prime of his career.
Rugby World Cup 2023 in France seemingly sets the scene for Mo’unga to confirm his world-class abilities, once and for all. If he wasn’t already, Romain Ntamack’s cruel injury blow elevates Mo’unga’s presence to one of the leading backline directors.
Such lofty status has been a long time coming, though.
For the best part of seven years, Mo’unga was the dominant force in Super Rugby to lead Scott Robertson’s Crusaders to titles in each of those seasons.
Super Rugby’s fast-paced expansive nature suits Mo’unga’s game. There his fleet footwork, honed through his touch football background, vision, passing and dynamic running threat all consistently shone.
Robertson always gushed over Mo’unga’s inherent skills. He therefore gave him the licence to effectively run matches as he saw fit – to take on the line, play what he sees, with others then reacting around him. Such an approach fuelled Mo’unga’s confidence. At the Crusaders he was enabled, supported, to back his natural instincts. Season after season that delivered title after title.
There are several notable factors why Mo’unga needed five years to replicate that level of surety and influence with the All Blacks.
The Test arena and Super Rugby are completely different beasts and, therefore, require different tactical approaches. With less time, space and holes in defensive lines to exploit, opportunities to play off the cuff are limited. Sticking within the confines of a structured game plan becomes more important, then.
Through time and experience – Mo’unga will play his 49th Test, against the Springboks on Friday night, since his 2018 debut – he has matured to grasp the role the All Blacks consistently expect from him. It’s no coincidence, either, that Joe Schmidt’s arrival has coincided with a clarity of game plan which includes prevalent kicks for space on the edges.
Mo’unga’s maturity has evolved from a place of uncertainty to now knowing he has the full backing of the All Blacks coaching staff. That has only been true since he helped guide the All Blacks to their upset triumph at Ellis Park last year – a result that saved Foster’s tenure. Prior to that, the head-to-head battle for the chief playmaker role with Beauden Barrett added significant pressure and, to a degree, undermined Mo’unga’s belief that he truly belonged.
Barrett’s move to fullback also complicated the playmaking picture. At first Barrett’s presence was too overbearing which didn’t allow Mo’unga the freedom to own the big moments. Their partnership is now in sync, though, with Mo’unga largely taking charge and Barrett sharing some of the tactical kicking responsibilities.
The other major factor is the difference in dominance between the Crusaders and All Blacks forward packs. Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, in an attempt to explain why Barrett largely started over Mo’unga during his tenure, suggested the Crusaders first-five enjoyed the benefit of playing behind a Rolls-Royce pack.
That was true. As is the reverse. Prior to Jason Ryan’s promotion from the Crusaders to All Blacks forwards coach mid-last year, the national team’s pack increasingly lost its fear factor.
Any playmaker, no matter their qualities, struggles without a consistent front foot platform.
Combine those elements and you begin to unpack Mo’unga seizing the keys to the All Blacks throne.
From an uncertain selection we’re now at the point when losing Mo’unga to injury would be a body blow for the All Blacks. His composure and clutch, match-winning goal kicking were evident in his influential second half performance and strike to sink the Wallabies in Dunedin. And for all his attacking qualities, Mo’unga’s defence has significantly improved, too.
As Wallabies coach Eddie Jones noted: “It’s only been the last 12 months that we’ve really seen a guy that looks like he belongs in the All Blacks,” Jones said. “Not just playing a Test here and he’s worried about making a mistake.
“He played with such calmness and his tackling, his work rate off the ball in defence was exceptional.
“It does take time and now particularly for No 10s, with defences being better and better organised and the line speed being harder, their job has become so much more difficult.”
While the All Blacks have alternate options Barrett is largely seen as a fullback – he’s yet to play a Test at first-five this year. And while Damian McKenzie stepped up from No. 10 against the Pumas in Mendoza, his shaky performance against the Wallabies in Dunedin leaves serious doubts about his readiness for the white hot heat of a World Cup.
Fifteen years ago, Mo’unga was pictured as a teenager with his idol, Dan Carter. Mo’unga went on to emulate, perhaps even surpass, Carter’s feats with the Crusaders to etch his legacy as one of Super Rugby’s greatest players.
As his second World Cup approaches, Mo’unga now has the chance to follow in Carter’s footsteps by leading the All Blacks to glory on foreign soil, before departing on a lucrative three-year deal with Japanese club Toshiba.
In the years to come Mo’unga could feasibly return to the All Blacks – but at 33 it will be a big ask – or potentially switch to represent Tonga.
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When you hear Mo’unga’s reasoning no one can begrudge his motivations for leaving after the World Cup.
“My job as a father and a husband is to provide for my family and put them first in decisions. That’s basically what I’m doing,” Mo’unga said earlier this year. “I’ve got a short window to play rugby so it’s taking advantage of that. Japan is a really good fit for me and my family and the age my kids are at.”
The Test scene will, though, soon be poorer for his imminent absence.