Beauden Barrett grimaces when I ask a question he does not like.
I am not asking him about the controversial new tackle laws, the threat of being targeted by England at Twickenham, or even whether a second defeat in five games would send the All Blacks into a tailspin.
Instead, on a quiet corner of a rugby field by the Thames, I am asking about how this tall, slight man feels about his status as perhaps world rugby’s only true superstar. Despite a third successive World Player of the Year award looking increasingly likely, Barrett seems uncomfortable with being singled out.
“When you mention that nomination I sort of get embarrassed,” he says. “It’s a team sport and we are in it together. The two us [he and fellow nominee Reiko Ioane] have been put up there, but it’s not something we skite [boast] about. That’s not the Kiwi way.”
It is an answer that stays with me. I have spent my career surrounded by top-class athletes, and very few are embarrassed by recognition to the extent Barrett so clearly is. I know that during my own career I was desperate to stand out in any way possible. But for Barrett this is not false modesty, but instead a natural aversion at the idea he might be anything other than a cog in the All Blacks’ machine.
“We definitely believe there are no superstars in our team,” he adds. “To be at fly-half in a great team, the All Blacks, it just means I’m pretty lucky.”
The All Blacks are just as lucky to have Barrett. Since a star turn off the bench in the 2015 World Cup final, the 27-year-old has made the iconic No 10 shirt his own, ensuring Dan Carter has barely been missed. His transition from promising youth to fully fledged superstar has been so seamless that even Barrett has to remind himself that what he and his team are achieving simply is not normal.
“To me, being an All Black means following our dreams,” he says. “We grow up in New Zealand from a young age getting up at 3am to watch the All Blacks play South Africa or England, it’s part of who we are. So to be an All Black now is amazing.
“I still have to keep reminding myself how special it is. Time flies. It seems like just yesterday I was playing my first game against Ireland, when I came off the bench, full of energy and flying into tackles, even though I couldn’t tackle back then. It was the power of that black jersey, it was amazing. There is something about it. And we are just a proud little nation, down in New Zealand, so it’s pretty cool.”
The All Blacks still have their routines, and Barrett grins as he recounts how debutants must wear their new cap all night and are not allowed to refuse a beer if offered one at any point that evening. It makes my own England initiation – singing ‘Old McDonald’ on the team bus as it was only song I could remember – pale in comparison, but there have to be lighter moments for a side that many consider the most successful in world sport.
That status brings with it a pressure incomparable with any other I have seen in sport. When I was playing I always felt that if England lost we had let down our team and supporters, but if New Zealand lost they had let down an entire nation. Speaking to Barrett only reinforces that opinion.
“Losing sucks, full stop. It’s horrible,” he says. “When you lose for the All Blacks it’s not a nice feeling. Expectations on us are pretty high. We have high standards and we know if we’ve let ourselves or let the jersey down.”
With Barrett in the No10 shirt the All Blacks have reached a position where every victory is greeted with a shrug and every loss is dissected over for weeks on end. That scrutiny increases ahead of titanic games with England and Ireland and next Saturday, and is unlikely to let up as the clock counts down to the 2019 World Cup.
He is diplomatic, but Barrett knows his legacy in the No10 shirt will be defined by what happens when New Zealand go for a third successive World Cup in Japan next year.
“We are treating these games as one-offs, but it’s hard to forget about the World Cup,” he admits. “We know it’s around the corner and of course it’s at the back of your mind. We are reminded of it constantly.”
But Barrett won’t allow himself to think too far beyond this weekend. He has a routine before every test match and before playing England this weekend will take a few moments to look at his jersey and absorb what it means to him. “I’ll just feel it and look at it,” he says. Barrett may be happy in the background off the pitch but on it all eyes will be on him.
The Telegraph, London