From GAA U-10s to rugby's best ten - Beauden Barrett's remarkable journey from Meath to the All Blacks
Barrett family forged strong ties during stay in Meath that still linger
Published 17/11/2016 | 02:30
Tuesday evening and darkness has already thieved the day sky as the visitor pulls his hired car into the SuperValu at Oldcastle.
He has travelled over 10,000 miles in the last couple of weeks, from Wellington to Chicago and to Rome and then London and now, here he is, sandwiched in a small northern corner of County Meath, hard by borders with Westmeath and Cavan.
Nearly there now. Home from home.
Kevin Barrett knows these roads well; they were cratered in 2000 when he first arrived and the potholes were big enough to swallow a small child.
"They were all filled in before the last election," wryly notes Dr Ann-Noelle Bennett, principal of St Fiach's National School in nearby Ballinacree where Kevin would send several of his own small army of children to school.
He only came here on business in the autumn of 1999 but when your business is a family farm and your family farm also houses a wife and six - later eight - children, the overlap becomes unavoidable but it also becomes uncomplicated.
So when he was asked to swap farms with Corkman Michael Murphy, a local dairy farmer, the Barrett blood that seeped through this land a century or so ago made it impossible for him to refuse.
Himself and Robyn had just the five boys and girl back then; sons Kane, Scott, Blake, Jordie and daughter Jenna all went to St Fiach's.
And Beauden of course. Back then, along with nine-year-old Kane, the then eight-year-old immersed himself in the U-10 school GAA side, and also with the local St Brigid's GAA team; now he is indisputably the best rugby number ten on the planet, named last Sunday as World Rugby's Player of the Year.
Around these parts, though, he is still remembered as young 'Beaudy', the cherub-faced boy with the kind face and an innate sporting talent.
Kevin, or 'Smiley', the nickname bestowed upon him in Taranaki and which would follow him to Ireland, was a towering lock forward who then pitched up with Buccaneers, then newly-arrived in Division One of the All-Ireland League.
"He was a big horse of a man," recalls long-time PRO Michael Silke. "You'd imagine him old-style pulling a bullock out of a ditch or righting a trailer by himself. He'd huge hands."
Brian Rigney, a former Irish international and one of the famous family of hurlers and footballers and rugby men, was a coach by then and recalls the immense presence of a still super-fit 36-year-old not long retired from Super Rugby. "He was as fit as any of the young lads here, training as hard as anyone despite having a day's work on the farm behind him and an absolute gentleman to boot," says Rigney of the patriarch of a family who have borne three All Blacks: lock Scott has been capped this autumn, while Jordie, Blake and Kane are also distinguished representative players.
"I'm not too sure our family can compare to theirs!"
Rigney recalls Beauden collecting balls at training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "You'd see him at kicking practice too," says former player Ted Robinson, recalling Beauden's keen obsession with the mechanics of the game even then.
The boys always accompanied their approving dad and inherited his finer attributes.
"His dad had a massive engine on him," adds Rigney.
"He was rugged, hard out, loved the rough and tumble. Young fellas would have picked up a lot of stuff from him. He was to us what John Langford was to Munster."
Despite his reputation at home, Barrett was never capped for the All Blacks; yet he has been more than compensated vicariously by witnessing the rise of Beauden to world prominence, not to mention Scott and the other emerging pros.
Beauden debuted in Ireland's infamous 'Hamilton Horror Show' in 2010, scoring nine points off the bench and was there in 2013 for the last-gasp Aviva win too.
Before that game, he returned to St Fiach's to talk to the pupils and staff; performing his personal haka while the school replied with their own version as Gaelige as they swapped memories of a childhood innocence.
"I loved it," he recalled in Chicago ahead of his side's defeat to Ireland. "We taught the little school in Ballinacree how to play rugby. It was always a round ball in Gaelic or soccer back then.
"I remember getting told off on my first day of school for taking my shoes off because it was cold. That's something they're not used to doing over there. Just a really cool experience over there. I made some really good friends too.
"Gaelic football was a sport I really enjoyed playing over there. A lot of the skill sets are similar."
When he debuted for the Wellington-based Super Rugby side, the Hurricanes, in 2011, the Barretts became the first father and son to do so.
"I've always been a back," says Barrett. "I think I've got the Sinclair genes on mum's side and obviously all the forwards have dad's genes.
"Mum's an athletic person, well she was back in the day too so can put a lot down to what she's done previously and she's obviously a very good cook."
Inside St Fiach's on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, they are rehearsing nativity plays; Barrett remains a wise man in a young body.
"He may break our hearts this Saturday," says Bennett, "but he will always be in them."