First there was one, then there were two, now there are three Barrett brothers in the All Blacks squad. Jane Phare looks at whether nature, nurture or a combination of both is behind their success.

There's a story about Kevin "Smiley" Barrett, well known in the world of rugby. Asked what he planned to do next after the last of his 167 appearances for Taranaki in 1999, he replied: "I'm gonna go breed some All Blacks".

In fact by then he'd already bred them. Sons Beauden, Scott and Jordie were most likely kicking a ball around with their brothers Kane and Blake back home on the family farm, a little tribe of burly backs and fast-footed forwards in the making.

But, as genetics experts will tell you, good breeding isn't everything. There's no single reason for the whirlwind success of the Barrett boys, no single magic component that has earned the three brothers the right to wear a black jersey. It is instead a case of the "perfect storm" that has seen an explosion of family talent propel Beauden, Scott and Jordie to the top of their game.

Yes they've inherited great genes from both parents, hard-working farming folk Kevin and Robyn, and possibly from grandparents or even further back in the Barrett gene pool. Kevin Barrett was sporty, playing rugby for Taranaki in the 90s, and for the Hurricanes in 1997 and 1998. Robyn was known as a fast runner and was a talented basketball and netball player.


That's a terrific start, says Professor Peter Dearden, director of genetics at the University of Otago. Good, sporty genes can deliver the right muscle structure, eyesight, balance, speed, agility and build. How genes are inherited is a " kind of lottery", he says.

Sporty parents don't necessarily produce sporty children.

"Clearly there are good genes in this family to build on." But Dearden thinks it's important to stress that great rugby players aren't built on genes alone. "I think hard work and practice is always going to get you a long way. The best genetics in the world will go nowhere if those individuals spent their life on the sofa watching rugby instead of out in the back yard having a crack at it."

And have a crack at it is what the Barrett kids did. Most days after school and at weekends, when they weren't helping with farm chores, they'd tumble out of the house on to the big back lawn, dubbed the Barrett Cricket Ground, for a game of rugby or cricket. Still do when they visit the dairy farm that is home at Pungarehu, south of New Plymouth, a short drive to the Tasman Sea and watched over by Mt Taranaki. They'd rope in the kids from the neighbouring farm and cousins who lived nearby to make up a team.

That environment meant the eight Barrett kids - the boys and their sisters Zara, Ella and Jenna - had another advantage, the opportunity to play and practice constantly, Dearden says. And there is evidence to suggest children from smaller communities, or even smaller cities, do better in sport because they have more opportunities to play every day than children in big cities who don't have easy access to back yards or parks.

Taranaki locals will tell you that in the Barrett household, lounging around or playing on electronic games wasn't an option. Both Kevin and Robyn Barrett work "bloody hard" on the farm and are always on the go, they say. Or as one local put it: "Robyn and Smiley don't stop moving."

The All Blacks is a family affair for Barrett brothers Beauden, Scottand and Jordie. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The All Blacks is a family affair for Barrett brothers Beauden, Scottand and Jordie. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Their children have either inherited or absorbed that same work ethic. And, in the case of the brothers, it has been transferred to rugby.

The Barrett brothers acknowledge the mixture of family genes and work ethic when it comes to their success. At an All Blacks press conference this week they attributed some of their talents to their dad, a former hard-nosed lock and rugby legend in Taranaki, but said their swiftness came from their mother.

''Mum was a pretty talented athlete herself, " Beauden Barrett said. "They all say our speed came from Mum and I guess the size and work rate from Dad."

Younger brother Scott pointed out that ''Mum works pretty hard round the farm. I don't know if you've seen that".

''There was always work to be done," Beauden said, "so we always saw Mum and Dad doing that, coming home cooking us dinner, getting us ready for school.
So if you relate that to your rugby it's about striving to be better, to be the best you can be."

Talk to the coaches who've watched the five brothers play and they all say the same thing.

Sure, the Barrett boys have inherited natural ability and good rugby brains. But there is something else, too. They put in the hard yards, they're competitive, dedicated and have the right attitude.

Blake, currently vice captain of his Coastal club team, hasthe "team first" attitude, according to rugby coach Joe Lawn. "He'd do anything for his team. That's all you can ask as a coach. If you get 22 guys turn up with that attitude you're going to go a long way."

Aaron Fisher, head coach for Coastal, agrees, saying Blake is always at training early and working out at the gym.

Beauden Barrett in action against Ireland in Dublin last year. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Beauden Barrett in action against Ireland in Dublin last year. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Lawn, who played with Kevin Barrett at Coastal, has coached "Beaudy," Kane and Blake but says he's not sure the club can take much credit for their success.

"They were pretty brilliant before they got to us. They've all got natural instincts. They see and understand the game in a different way to a lot of other players. You can't coach that." The brothers have "a very special mix of talents, skills and vision," he says.

He too thinks genetics plays a part but is not the whole story. "They're born with it but they're bloody hard workers too. You'd struggle to find a harder working family around here whether that's on field or off field."

"They've been instilled with those traits from their parents and their grandparents who farmed in the area. It's the environment they've been brought up in. The old nature/nurture thing, in this case they've just had the perfect blend."

Mixed in there too is a competitive streak but one that comes with a good attitude.

Fisher played rugby with Kevin Barrett at the Opunake Rugby Club and remembers him as a tough, competitive player but a nice bloke. Three years ago Fisher saw that same competitive streak in Barrett's youngest son Jordie while coaching the secondary school under-18s. During warm-up games of touch, Jordie could see the fun side of it but he always played to win, he says.

"Everything was competitive but they did it in a humble way. If there was a winner and a loser they always wanted to be on the winning side. But they had fun and they were humble losers as well."

Local coaches also talk about the Barrett boys' passion for the game and their eagerness to play for Coastal.

Lawn says he's had texts from the brothers late on a Friday night after they've played a Super Rugby game saying 'thinking about sneaking home. Is there a jersey for me?'

"(I say) mate, if you can get home there's a jersey for you, there's never a question of that. They'd love to play for their club but circumstances don't allow it."

Coastal's club chairman, Brent Davies, also laments their loss. He remembers Beauden, "the wonder kid of the First XV" at Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth, arriving at the club with remarkable skills. "He was a blazing light. He was head and shoulders above our club scene."

He played a dozen games before the club lost him to professional rugby. " Jordie and Scott pretty much disappeared to professional rugby straight from school."

Blake is playing "very good rugby for us," he says Kane, after playing for Taranaki and Super Rugby with the Blues, is now not playing due to concussion issues, although he is still involved with the club.

Davies knows Coastal is unlikely to see the Barrett All Black brothers back on home turf but just for a moment he lets his imagination wander.

"If they did we'd pack the bloody stadium and the bar would do great takings and we'd get a jersey to auction and it'd be great," he says laughing.

The influence of combined family talent plays a part in an athlete's success according to Jeremy Hapeta, physical education lecturer at Massey University's school of sport and exercise.

Research shows good genes are helpful, but encouragement from a "significant other" is also important.

As a youngster Hapeta played with "Smiley" Barrett 20 years ago in the Hurricanes B team before "he got the big call up from Frank (Oliver) to join the A team". He says the influence of Kevin Barrett and other family members, and the influence of the Barrett siblings on each other, cannot be underestimated. Scott Barrett acknowledges that on the All Blacks website, when asked about the biggest influence on his rugby career. It was his mum, dad and brothers supprting him since he was a young boy, coming to every game, and learning to play on the back lawn, he says.

New Zealand tends to favour the "early diversification" model - having a go at everything or a variety of sports - because we don't have the huge population of countries like China which favour "early specialisation," Hapeta says. And he thinks that's an advantage.

Early diversification is pretty much the Kiwi lifestyle, he says. Youngsters will play cricket or touch on the beach, and kids from rural communities join school sports or teams simply to make up the numbers. Jordie Barrett did just that, excelling at rugby, golf and playing cricket for Taranaki - which means he played and practiced all three games rather than specialising early.

"You transfer those skills to the sport you specialise in," Hapeta says.

The Barrett family ticks all the boxes, he says. They have the genes, they "sampled" a lot of sport and played continually while growing up, they were influenced by other family members and they specialised.

" It's the perfect storm," Hapeta says. "It's worked out pretty well for them."

All Blacks brothers

The Barretts join more than 40 sets of brothers to be All Blacks including Julian and Ardie Savea; Sam, George and Luke Whitelock; Zinzan and Robin Brooke, twin brothers Alan and Gary Whetton, Owen and Ben Franks, Don and Ian Clarke, Colin and Stan Meads, Graeme and Stephen Bachop, Lawrence, Cyril and Maurice Brownlie, Ginger and Mark Nicholls, and Charles and Pat Purdue.