What is Creativity? – the curious case of Beauden Barrett versus South Africa
No position on the rugby field is more closely identified with the idea of creativity than the number 10 – outside-half, or first five-eighth, depending upon which part of the rugby world you come from.
As a boy growing up in Wales, the number 10 jersey was the most coveted in the schoolyard. Everybody wanted to be Barry John or Phil Bennett, but there could be only one. Most had to be content with being Delme Thomas or Bobby Windsor instead.
If the notion of creativity can be summarized in one word, that word would be ‘vision’. The number 10 has to be able to see the attacking possibilities unfolding on the pitch a few seconds before they happen. He has to be able to see the geometry of the offence in relation to the defence, communicate his findings to the players around him, and handle the ball accurately – and he has to do all of those things in the fractions of a moment.
Vision can be improved, and ‘Vision training’ is fast becoming a must-have at the elite end of sport. One of the best-know vision trainers in Rugby is Dr. Sherylle Calder, who worked with two successive World Cup winners in England (2003) and South Africa four years later. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of Calder’s favourite ex-students is Jonny Wilkinson, the England number 10.
She not only believes that visual acuity is rarely trained as thoroughly as the body in athletes, but also feels that it is rapidly deteriorating in an age when eyesight is often focused on small devices like a mobile phone:
“Most people believe we are born with the system we have, but you can train the eyes, the brain and the body to perform better.”
“We warm up the rest of the body, but about 80 to 90% of the information that you base a decision on comes from the eyes and it’s the only system we put by the wayside.”
“Often with elite players we find that physically they’re in good shape, but if they lose concentration they make mistakes – not because they technically can’t do it but the visual system is giving them information either too slowly or inaccurately.”
Better peripheral awareness and depth perception lead to better decision-making, and from this perspective Beauden Barrett’s game in the recent match between New Zealand and South Africa in Wellington was of interest from start to finish.
There appear to be both pluses and minuses to Barrett’s type of vision in the number 10 spot, and an excellent example of both occurred as early as the 3rd minute of the game
The All Blacks have won a quick ball and created a temporary 6 to 4 overlap out on the right. At the critical moment there is the opportunity for Barrett to pass across the front of the two forwards closest to him and hit Kieran Read, who can then connect with the wing (Ben Smith) out of shot in the “1” position. This option is also made more attractive by the tendency of the South African left wing (Aphiwe Dyantyi) to jam in hard, leaving the space to the outside free, but Barrett doesn’t see it.
The phase following immediately highlighted the pluses: Barrett’s very sharp instinctive vision when the defence is right on top of him and he has to make a decision ‘without thinking’:
Lukhanyo Am comes up, Dyantyi jams in and Barrett has no time to do anything but manufacture an offload to Ben Smith.
Only one minute later, an outstanding example of this kind of instinctive vision created a try for Beauden’s brother Jordie:
With Handre Pollard right on top of him, Barrett only has time to pick the ball up off his bootlaces and flip it on in one movement – and his hand/eye coordination can do that superbly well.
The ‘sweet spot’ in Barrett’s range of vision was underlined later in the half:
Springbok number 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit flies up on the outside and forces Barrett to ‘see’ the right option, a short pass to prop Karl Tuinukuafe which puts him into the hole that has been created.
Whenever Barrett was forced to react instinctively and immediately, he did something right. But when he was asked to ‘see the field’ further away from him, the situation was not nearly so clear-cut and tended to cause uncertainty instead:
There is a clear opportunity to score close to the Springbok goal-line, if Barrett has the vision to hit Anton Lienert-Brown a couple of spots outside him:
The gap between Am and Dyantyi is an inviting 10 metres wide, and Lienert-Brown begins his angled run straight towards it, scenting the chance. But Barrett doesn’t see it quickly enough, and the opportunity goes a-begging.
The clearest instance of that lack of peripheral vision occurred just before half-time
There are three New Zealand backs strung out and ready to strike on Barrett’s left shoulder – Lienert-Brown, Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane – with only Springbok second row Eben Etzebeth and right wing Jesse Kriel (out of shot) to oppose them. But Barrett seems blissfully unaware of the advantage to that side and wanders back towards the posts instead:
Summary Beauden Barrett’s status as the incumbent All Black number 10 and World Player of the Year can mask the complex questions he raises about the nature of creativity on a rugby field.
His stupendous athletic gifts and ability to react quickly in tight situations create a huge number of opportunities for the teams in which he plays to score. Nobody does it better.
But as soon as the perspective widens and he is required to pick a pass, using the width of the field and choosing from a number of options, the ‘vision’ is much less sure-footed. As Sherylle Calder would say, ‘the visual system is giving him information too slowly or inaccurately’.
For the All Blacks coaching staff, it is a fascinating issue to have to resolve in one of the very best players on the face of the planet.