Men's Journal

THE GLOBAL SPORTS SUPERSTAR YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

As the clock winds down in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final, the Australian Wallabies are desperate. Down 10 points to the New Zealand All Blacks, they must score twice to win. They are forced to start taking chances, and as so often happens in the most gut-wrenching moments of an athletic competition, they get just a little too reckless. A bobbled pass becomes a turnover scooped up by an All Black defender, who, even as three Wallabies converge on him, manages to kick the ball far downfield.

And then Beauden Barrett starts running, and all of New Zealand starts cheering.

For a star player in a sport that puts a premium on brute strength, Barrett is neither very big nor very tall. But when he finds a gap on the pitch and starts to churn his legs, everyone else suddenly seems to be playing a different, much slower game. The moment Barrett breaks free of the chasing pack in the Cup Final, the result is a foregone conclusion. Well before he reaches the end zone, there is plenty of time for an entire nation to jubilantly rise from their seats, and relax. There will be no stopping the All Blacks now. Even the ball seems to know it, as it takes an uncanny bounce at the penultimate moment right into Barrett’s arms.

Barrett scores, but the celebration has already begun.

Back then, Barrett wasn’t even a starter, but in the four years since, he has won two consecutive International Player of the Year awards, set a slew of individual records, and filled the most important position on a team that in the last few years has won a higher percentage of its games than at any point in its history. A case can be made: Right now, Beauden Barrett is the best player on the best team in the history of rugby. That’s Michael Jordan territory.

The crazy thing is, unless you are already a rugby fan, you’ve probably never heard of him. That’s partly because, on the international stage, rugby’s profile remains fairly low. The game’s popularity, both in the U.S. and abroad, as measured by television ratings and the number of players and teams, is steadily growing. But the first World Cup for the version of the sport that the All Blacks play, rugby union, didn’t take place until 1987. Compared with more-established sports, there’s far less money and, consequently, far less hype. In 2018, Barrett is estimated to have made around $670,000 playing for the All Blacks and his professional club, the Wellington Hurricanes. Soccer’s Lionel Messi makes about $92 million a year.

But Barrett’s paucity of ESPN headlines or sports magazine covers is also partially explained by the fact that in New Zealand rugby, showboating is anathema and placing one’s ego above team success is considered extremely bad form. Getting anyone associated with New Zealand rugby to talk about “the best player on the best team” is a hopeless task. That’s just not the “Kiwi way.” The most that I can get the CEO of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Steve Tew, to say is that Barrett is “a very skillful rugby player.”

When I ask Barrett how he remembers his dash downfield at the 2015 World Cup Final, the 28-year-old athlete does everything he can to soft-sell his achievement. First, he deflects credit to Ben Smith, the teammate who intercepted the Wallaby pass. Then he notes that since he had come into the game as a late substitution, he had fresh legs compared with everyone else. And finally, he recalls the miraculous ricochet that allowed him to cradle the ball to his chest while in full stride as a stroke of pure luck. “I don’t know if I have ever had a more perfect bounce,” Barrett says. “It made my job a bit easier.”

It made my job a bit easier. Listening to Barrett relentlessly search for ways to downplay his greatness is a perfect introduction to the paradox of the Kiwi way as represented by the All Blacks. Modesty and decorum are all over the place, but you don’t win at the rate the All Blacks do by self-effacement on the field. And of the many adjectives that come to mind when you witness a vein-popping performance of the intimidating All Black haka, the Maori dance performed by the team before each match, humble is likely to be last on the list.

With another World Cup underway—the 2019 six-week-long tournament kicked off in Japan in September—the Kiwi national expectation is that the All Blacks will not only win an unprecedented third straight title but do so in overwhelming style. This time around, Barrett will be a starter aiming to further cement an already historic legacy. The question that fans of other nations might well be pondering, as they quake before the roar of the haka and the rolling thunder of the All Blacks charging down the field in unison, is: How the hell are these guys so good while managing to be so goddamned nice about it?

JUST A FEW HOURS AFTER LANDING at the Wellington airport after a 14-hour flight from California, I find myself in a hotel bar for an off-the-record meet-and-greet with Barrett and Dean Hegan, an executive at the sports agency that represents Barrett and many of the All Blacks. I’m coming fresh from an interview with Rugby Union CEO Tew, described to me by Hegan as “one of the two most powerful people in New Zealand Rugby.” And I’ll be interviewing the other most-powerful person, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, the next day.

Barrett charges forward against the Australia Wallabies, 2018. (HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES)
A case can be made: Right now, Beauden Barrett is the best player on the best team in the history of rugby.

It’s all more than a bit surreal. Within hours of my arrival in the far South Pacific, I have plunged about as deep as it is possible to go into the beating heart of a rugby-mad nation. It’s as if a writer who had never been to an NBA game suddenly conducted back-to-back interviews with Commissioner Adam Silver, LeBron James, and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Jet-lagged and wary of my ignorance, I take a seat next to Barrett and order a beer. Everybody is drinking Amstels, so I follow suit. Even sitting down, Barrett carries himself with the grace of a professional athlete who knows he can do things that most mortals cannot. But he also sports a calm, in-the-moment tranquility that puts one at ease.

I break the ice by mentioning that barely five minutes into my cab ride from the airport, the driver told me he is “something of an expert on the topic of Beauden Barrett.” Barrett greets the news with a surprised and bashful grin. We discuss the problem of concussions in a violent sport; the lack of helmets and pads in rugby makes the sport safer than American football, I hear, because players are less likely to lead with their head when making tackles.

A second round of beers is ordered, and I get a quick introduction into the labyrinthine competitive structure of rugby. Like soccer, the international rugby scene is divided between national teams and club teams that hire the best players from all over the world. Most rugby nations have their national leagues, but there are also leagues that include clubs from different countries. The premier example is the elite Super Rugby league, a collection of 15 franchises in five countries. The Super Rugby league playoffs are just two weeks away, to be followed immediately by the Rugby Championships, an annual showdown between national teams representing Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. And then comes the World Cup, a 20-team tournament featuring the usual Commonwealth inheritors of British imperialism, a smattering of South Pacific nations including Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, and a few random outliers—Japan (the host country), France, Argentina, and the U.S.

Drinking with fans at a pub in Wellington (GRAEM MURRAY)
With brothers, and fellow All Blacks, Jordie (left) and Scott. (GETTY IMAGES.)

After draining his second Amstel, Barrett excuses himself, but the following afternoon, I get some more time with him. We meet up in the bowels of Westpac Stadium, home of the Wellington Hurricanes, nestled between bright green rain forest–covered hills and the magnificent Wellington harbor. Barrett is a tad more cautious with the tape recorder running but still displays zero pretension or impatience.

In a way, Barrett is a prototype for the future of global rugby celebrity. He has endorsement deals with Tudor watches and Red Bull and more than 400,000 followers on Instagram. His model-gorgeous wife, Hannah, whom he married last January, is also a budding social media influencer. After this year’s Cup, Barrett is expected to cash in with a lucrative year or two playing in Japan before returning to the Kiwi fold.

It’s not a life he expected to lead when he was growing up on a rough-and-tumble dairy farm in the province of Taranaki, just south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. His father, Kevin “Smiley” Barrett, never made it all the way to the All Blacks but was a legendarily “tough as teak” enforcer for the local Taranaki club and played a few years with the Hurricanes. Barrett’s first memories of rugby, he says, are of watching his father play. “I remember going to watch his club training at nighttime,” he says. “Because you’d do a full day’s work on the farm and then train at night.”

All four of Barrett’s brothers play rugby—two of them, Scott and Jordie, also play for the All Blacks. His mother, Robyn, an athlete in her own right who played netball, a variant of basketball popular in Commonwealth countries, was notorious for meeting her sons at school—but only to pick up their bags. The boys were then required to run three-and-a-half kilometers…barefoot. The goal was to beat the bus home.

Robyn, I am later told by a Taranaki resident I meet in a Wellington pub, was also responsible for Barrett’s relentlessly “good manners.” In almost any other star athlete, Barrett’s efforts to deflect praise would sound like false modesty. But Barrett has a way of just sounding well brought up. When I note to him that, in contrast to 2015, he is going to be a starter and leader of this year’s World Cup team, his answer rings with disarming sincerity. “Oh look, I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t know what our plans are. Whatever role the coaches decide for me and the team, I’m happy with that.”

But then he pauses, almost as if he was reviewing in his mind whether he had just gone a little bit too overboard on the Kiwi Way.

“But I do expect to start,” he adds.

The only time I get a real rise out of Barrett is when I ask him whether the haka contradicts the “no showboating” All Blacks credo. For the first and only time, he tenses up. The haka, says Barrett, is about “honoring our heritage and those who have gone before us.”

“It’s not necessarily about showing how tough we are or how strong we are or how scary we are,” he says. “It’s about connecting with each other.”

The merging of Maori and English settler society, and much later, Pacific Islander immigration, has historically been a rocky business in New Zealand and is very much still a work in progress. But once you get Kiwi rugby fans talking about the haka, it’s a pretty short step to understanding that one of the reasons why the All Blacks are so tough and strong, and yes, scary, is that the team explicitly considers itself a symbol of multicultural unity and reconciliation. Maori warrior DNA, Pacific Islander size and agility, English settler farm-bred toughness—the All Blacks are a model of potent hybrid fusion, and they know it.

“The haka is about us,” Barrett says. “It’s not about the opposition.”

IT’S EARLY IN THE EVENING ON A COOL, drizzly Saturday in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. At the D4 on Featherston, a capacious pub that’s walking distance from Westpac Stadium, Hurricane fans are gathering for pints before the game. Yellow Hurricane jerseys are everywhere. A huge projection screen is showing a Super Rugby match between the Buenos Aires Jaguares and the Tokyo Sunwolves, but interest in it seems desultory. (There are no All Blacks involved, after all.)

Then Barrett drops in and orders a Guinness.

He’s not playing tonight—the Hurricanes can’t improve their playoff position, so most of the team’s All Blacks are sitting out as a precautionary measure against the disaster of a season-ending injury in a World Cup year—so why not? No mob scene ensues, but there’s a tangible change in the ambient buzz. Conversations get louder and the general level of merriment amps up. An All Black is in the house, and not just any All Black, but Beauden Barrett. People try to be cool because that’s the Kiwi way, but as Barrett makes the rounds, fans jump at the chance for selfies. I follow in his wake, hoping folks will be a little more expansive in their explanations of what makes Barrett’s game so great than Barrett was willing to do himself. I am not disappointed.

“He makes it look so easy.”

“He’s always in the mix.”

“He’s a magician.”

“He’s the best number 10 in the world.” In rugby, each position has a permanent number. The number 10 always refers to the position of fly half. In American football, it’s what would be called a skill position, like a receiver, running back, or quarterback. Except, as is appropriate to the controlled chaos that is a rugby game, the fly half is kind of a mixture of all three, expected to be able to pass and receive, kick and run, direct the overall flow of the game, and, whenever possible, score.

The goal of rugby, like any variation of football, is to get the ball into the end zone. In rugby, touchdowns are called “tries” and are worth five points, after which conversions can be kicked for two points. Penalty kicks are worth three points, and teams also have the option, any time they want, of drop-kicking the ball at the goalposts for another three-point score. Forward passes are forbidden, but there’s also an anything-goes anarchic spirit that invests rugby with more zest than either American football or soccer. Legend has it that the game’s invention dates back to one day in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, a student at England’s Rugby School, basically said fuck it in the middle of a football game, caught the ball and started running with it. The story may not be true, but the winner of the Rugby World Cup is awarded the Webb Ellis trophy, so there’s little question that the spirit of the young man’s casual disregard for propriety is alive and well. Any player can kick or pass the ball, and when possession is disputed, the game devolves into rucks and scrums, in which giant men leverage their bodies together in frantic struggles for the ball that look, from a distance, like a pack of wild boars fighting over a truffle.

The All Blacks perform the haka at a 2019 match against Fiji. (PHIL WALTER/GETTY IMAGES)
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says Barrett possesses a quality shared by many great athletes: “He’s got a lot of time to do things.”

The fly half stays well clear of the scrum. Barrett, who is just under 6'2" and listed at 200 pounds, can tackle with the best of them, but his game is not about violence. His magic is the prestidigitation of intuition in the moment, of sensing and acting on possibilities that the rest of us just don’t see. Steve Hansen, the coach of the All Blacks, says Barrett possesses a quality shared by many great athletes: “He’s got a lot of time to do things.”

Rugby achieves some of its most thrilling moments when an entire line of players runs full-tilt down the field while hurling the ball from side to side, seeking a gap in the opponent’s defensive alignment that will open up a lane to the end zone. It is at these moments that Barrett is prone to demonstrate his time-and-space advantage with one of his go-to moves, a short, no-look backward dump-off pass that he likes to flip behind himself to a teammate running just as fast as he is. Executed successfully, the sleight-of-hand throws the defense off with the gusto of a Times Square three-card monte hustler. Nobody has an eye on the recipient of the pass, who suddenly breaks free into open territory. The move seems incredibly risky.

It is, almost by definition, not a modest or humble move.

But what happens on the field should not be lumped in with how one comports oneself off the field. Coach Hansen says he has no problem with what he calls “playing arrogant.” “That’s a different arrogance,” he says. “That’s having complete faith in your own ability, and trust with the guys that you are playing with.”

And maybe that resolves the paradox of the Kiwi way. The All Blacks don’t need to strut about off the field, or seek their own cults of personality or celebrity, because the way they play on the field is as arrogant as a jazz saxophone master laying down a sublime improvisation. It needs no embroidering, no rococo ornamentation. The All Blacks, like Beauden Barrett hitting the gap and turning on his jets, are their own manifest destiny.

“We believe we speak with our actions,” says Barrett. “Really, that’s the way we like to do it.”