Richie Mo’unga will join a special group within New Zealand rugby when he pulls on the All Blacks No. 10 jersey in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland.
The men who have previously worn the jersey in the knockout rounds of the World Cup are generally regarded among the best New Zealand has produced, and Mo’unga takes a place in their ranks aged only 25 and after only 14 tests.
His predecessors include the likes of World Cup-winning flyhalves Grant Fox and Dan Carter, and notable playmakers Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer.
Fox was the outstanding goalkicker who helped New Zealand to win the first rugby World Cup in 1987. Mehrtens was part of an extraordinary All Blacks team which reached the final in `95 and another which fell in the semifinals in `99. Spencer’s prodigious talent wasn’t enough to prevent New Zealand’s semifinal exit in 2003. Carter began in 2003 and played in three other World Cup, winning world championships in 2011 and 2015.
Mo’unga is among the most inexperienced to have taken up the pivotal role.
Fox was also 25 in 1987 but had been an All Blacks player for three years; Mehrtens was 22 in `95 but at the beginning of a record-breaking career. Spencer was 27 in `03 and Carter was 25 in `07 but had been an All Blacks regular for four years.
The All Blacks will have few reservations about Mo’unga’s ability to cope with the responsibility hefted upon him. He has already demonstrated composure beyond his years during his test career.
Prior to that he had one of the most high-profile jobs in New Zealand rugby as flyhalf for the Crusaders team which has won 10 Super Rugby titles, three with him at the helm.
He also followed Mehrtens and Carter into that Crusaders role and it ensured he was fast-tracked into the All Blacks team as he became pivotal to Super Rugby championship-winning campaigns in each of the last three years.
There were doubters. Because he played behind a Crusaders’ pack which was of almost test strength, he was accused of having a ”saloon passage” – an easy ride – as a flyhalf which made him appear better than he was.
But he demonstrated on his elevation to the All Blacks and when he faced intense pressure early in his test career that he was able to perform under even the most trying conditions.
Mo’unga, who is of Tongan and Samoan heritage, had the opportunity to play at the Crusaders under the great Ireland flyhalf Ronan O’Gara who, he said, was often a harsh task-master and sparing in his praise.
”He’s been honest with me,” Mo’unga said. ”He’s had a few hard words with me at the start of the year around my goalkicking and a few other things around my game play, which has put me in good stead.”
Opportunity knocked for Mo’unga this season when the All Blacks coaches drafted a dual playmaker style. They intended to use Beauden Barrett at flyhalf and Damian McKenzie at fullback, interchangeably. But when McKenzie sustained a season-ending injury, a gap opened up for Mo’unga. He took it.
He was tried at flyhalf with Barrett at fullback and after a few faltering steps the combination clicked.
Now Mo’unga has won plaudits for his performances in the pool stages of the World Cup and he seems well equipped for the trial of knockout rugby.
”You can’t get ahead of yourself,” he said. ”(I’m) just taking each moment as it comes, and just really lapping it up.
”The most important thing is just being in the moment and just really diving into the experience (of) what a World Cup is.”
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