There are mouthwatering matchups all over the pitch at Twickenham on Saturday but the contest that most catches my eye is between the two full-backs. Freddie Steward, England’s Mr Reliable, against one of the All Blacks’ most lethal weapons in Beauden Barrett. Two completely different players but both are integral to their teams this on Saturday.
Steward has looked comfortable at full-back for England since his very first cap. He has 15 now and I can honestly say he has not had a bad performance for the national side. The baseline requirements for a full-back are positional sense, providing security at the back, being solid in the air, on the floor and good decision making. Steward produces that for England every single time he appears and, in addition, he contributes to attacking play and scores tries. Security is the most important thing that you want from the spine of your team and he provides it.
Steward is only 21 but perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that he is not someone who has burst on to the scene because of sheer athleticism – someone like Louis Rees-Zammit with express pace or Manu Tuilagi with raw power. The one thing that makes him a mainstay for England is his rugby IQ, he has just got a really nice feel for the game. That is something that normally comes with experience and considerably more caps than Steward has. From what I hear from players who have played with him for club or country, they have never seen a safer pair of hands and I have to agree.
That’s me observing from the stands but as someone who used to play in the back three I know the effect it has on your wings. It allows them to just get on with their jobs because they’re not worrying about the person who knits that unit together. Ultimately, you need a commanding full-back to get a back three that really works effectively; you need good communication, a sense of authority, and skill execution. Freddie has that and that can bring the best out of two very experienced wings.
The question that fascinates me is if you’re Joe Schmidt, plotting England’s downfall, how best do you go about it? I return to the last Premiership final for a lesson in how not to do it. Saracens box-kicked everything to Steward that day and, funnily enough, he caught everything. The problem is that when you set up for a box-kick it takes about 15 minutes (!) so it’s really easy to position yourself for it because you know where the ball is heading. If it’s off a touchline it’s going to land between the 15m and the touchline so you shuffle Freddie across, he dominates the airspace, he steals a few metres and all of a sudden you’re on the front foot.
If I were coaching New Zealand’s attack I would implore the players to keep the ball away from the skies and away from Steward. I’d be kicking a lot more off No 10 because you can crossfield kick, crossfield bomb kick, produce a high hanging kick, kick back on the blindside, or stick it in the air. The point is that there are a lot more options when kicking off the No 10 than off the scrum-half where there is much less deception. The fly-half can change the landscape just by the options they have. When you have got Richie Mo’unga wearing the No 10 jersey as well as Beauden and Jordie Barrett to step in, all excellent kickers who can spray the ball from coast to coast, I would aim to capitalise on that.
Beauden Barrett also provides security for his side but he is in the side much more for what he can bring in attack – for his kicking variety, for his vision, and for his ability to step in at second receiver. His pace is a key asset as well – it’s easy to forget just how quick he is – and England will have to be on the money with their kicking. It seems an obvious thing to say but you cannot kick loose to Beauden Barrett. I thought Jack van Poortvliet kicked very well against Japan and, though this is a step up, he reminds me of Steward in the way that he has taken to international rugby. We can expect him to box-kick a lot because doing so for Steward is one of England’s key attacking weapons, but he has to be accurate with it.
Last weekend Scotland were able to put New Zealand under pressure for large spells of the match but what impressed me about Beauden Barrett – and the same goes for Jordie – is that he didn’t hide. His crossfield kicks were not coming off, there was one incident where he almost fell over, but he kept coming and coming and helped drag the All Blacks over the line. It is brilliant to see players have such belief in what their skillset is and, when things are not necessarily going their way, they commit more strongly rather than shy away. That’s what I fully expect today and if Freddie can continue his form it will be an intriguing battle and one that will go a long way to deciding the outcome.