Rugby-Barrett or Carter? All Blacks flyhalf debate ramps up

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By Greg Stutchbury WELLINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - Beauden Barrett's return to Super Rugby on Friday should serve to ease a concern or two for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen about his World Cup selection plans. It will also no doubt trigger another round of one of the most popular debates in rugby-mad New Zealand -- who should start at flyhalf at the World Cup in England later this year? Barrett, who will return from a knee injury this weekend, was the early favourite ahead of veteran Dan Carter, Colin Slade and the now injured Aaron Cruden, who is almost certainly out of the World Cup after knee surgery. The 24-year-old Barrett's blistering pace, booming kicks, willingness to attack and ability to unleash a potent backline helped propel the Wellington Hurricanes to the top of the Super Rugby standings. Such was his form, an internet poll run by the New Zealand Herald newspaper earlier this week had Barrett garnering 45 percent of the more than 4100 votes as the preferred choice to pilot the world champions in their title defence. Carter was second-favourite on 37 percent, with his injured Canterbury Crusaders team mate Slade, who has leapt into World Cup contention in no small part because of his versatility, a long way back on 10 percent. It was little surprise that Carter, who is leaving New Zealand rugby for French side Racing Metro at the conclusion of the World Cup, had dropped behind his former understudy. The 33-year-old has barely played in his preferred position this season and appeared mostly at inside centre, where he was unable to provide the penetration needed to make the Crusaders' attack less staid and predictable. Carter's performances caused concerns for pundits, fans and even the All Blacks selection panel, although they felt his form was a symptom of a wider malaise at the Crusaders. "Dan has had a tough couple of years, struggling with his body ... (and) has been in a struggling team which hasn't helped," All Blacks selector Grant Fox told TV3 last week. Carter made just his third start in the number 10 jersey against the Hurricanes last week. While no-one would suggest he was back to the level that saw him twice named World Player of the Year, there were aspects of his performance that showcased the skillset and temperament needed to win test matches. Carter kept the Hurricanes pinned inside their own territory with smart kicking and game management and was willing to run the ball more often than when he was cramped in the midfield. Few would disagree the zip that characterised Carter's early career, allowing him to accelerate and wrong foot the defence before finding support players, has diminished. By challenging the line, however, he creates doubt in defences, something that was evident in Nelson against a Hurricanes side who also had to commit players to the large frames of Robbie Fruean and Nemani Nadolo outside Carter. He also kicked six of seven goals against the Hurricanes and has a far superior goal-kicking record to Barrett, which could be crucial during the knockout phases of the World Cup. It is likely that will play a part in swaying the selection decision in his favour, with Hansen widely known to prefer the cooler head of Carter in tight situations. Until last season when Barrett finally started his first test at flyhalf against Argentina in Napier, Hansen had considered him more of a 'super-sub' because of his ability to exploit tiring defences off the bench. Barrett's big concern, however, was that in his last start at flyhalf, against Wales in Cardiff last November, he did not stamp himself on the match until the second half and made a greater impact when he shifted to fullback as the All Blacks ran away with the game in the final 15 minutes. Carter, meanwhile, has proven time and again that he can seize control from the opening whistle, something Hansen knows only too well. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)