It's a quirk of fate that the All Blacks have produced an endless stream of world class first-fives in the last decade but no iconic or famed halfback-No 10 combination.

What's particularly quirky is that the All Blacks have dominated world rugby in the same period and yet most other history-making sides have had a long established, internationally recognised 9-10 combination pulling the strings.

The great Welsh sides of the 1970s were governed by Gareth Edwards and Barry John and then Edwards and Phil Bennett. When Australia ruled the world, they had Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh in their first era and George Gregan and Stephen Larkham in their second.

England at their peak in 2003 had the smooth-running pairing of Matt Dawson and Jonny Wilkinson and the Springboks built their 1995 World Cup triumph on Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky.


They have built plenty of enduring combinations in the last 15 years. They have produced a world class locking combination in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.

The loose trio of Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read became recognised as one of the best and Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have a world record number of appearances as a centre pairing.

But the All Blacks haven't had a famed and revered 9-10 combinations since Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens in their heyday between 1996 and 2002.

Dan Carter played more than 100 tests between 2003 and 2015 but never had a regular halfback partner in that time. Between 2004, when he first played at No 10 and 2011, he saw halfbacks come and go.

Byron Kelleher, Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu racked up the tests but none managed to stay in the No 9 jersey for consistent periods to build a memorable combination with Carter.

But Carter was hampered by injury between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and while Smith played 48 tests in that period, only 21 of them were with the former in the No 10 jersey.

Beauden Barrett celebrates with Aaron Smith. Photo / Photosport
Beauden Barrett celebrates with Aaron Smith. Photo / Photosport

The question that arises this weekend is whether it is time to start considering Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett as a great halfback-first-five combination?

They will start their 30th test together in Pretoria which makes them the most experienced All Blacks partnership since Mehrtens and Marshall.

But what to make of the Smith-Barrett combination? Marshall and Mehrtens had both individual and collective strengths that made them hugely influential tactical directors.

Marshall, derided for an ill-conceived perception he was a poor passer, was one of the most astute and tactically aware halfbacks of the modern era.

He had the vision and force of personality to direct the play as he saw it and few read the game better than Marshall and no one had more natural desire to compete and scrap.

The beauty of his partnership with Mehrtens is that Marshall didn't overplay his hand. As much as he imposed himself, he didn't overly do so and had a depth of trust in his first-five that allowed Mehrtens to use his long kicking game to turn opponents and his natural gift for playing others into space with his passing and timing.

Smith and Barrett are a different proposition entirely. They are both individually among the best to ever play in their positions and more often than not they are among the most influential All Blacks in each test.

But they tend to impose themselves through the speed of their movements and by directing a high octane game-plan. As orchestrators of a pass and run game, they are outstanding.

Smith is one of the best passing nines in history and his delivery and ability to get to every ruck means the All Blacks play at incredible pace.

Barrett is similar in that it is his running game that hurts teams and his ability to stretch and break defences through his quite uncanny timing and pace is remarkable.

Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. Photo / Photosport
Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. Photo / Photosport

Several times in the last two years good sides have been torn apart by the pace and sheer relentless attacking desire of Smith and Barrett.

But there is a statistic that alludes to a weakness of the Smith-Barrett partnership. Their win ratio as a partnership is 80 per cent, which compares with the All Blacks' win ratio of 90 per cent since those two played their first test together in 2014.

The All Blacks have lost tests when Smith and Barrett have started - South Africa 2014 and 2018, Ireland 2016 and Lions 2017. All four are marked by the same failing - that the All Blacks met a committed defence and forward pack and lost their shape and composure.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen reckoned the game management in the most recent loss to the Boks was non-existent and in truth, he could have said much the same about the loss to Ireland.

The All Blacks also became tunnell-visioned tactically in the loss to the Lions - an affliction that kicked in after Sonny Bill Williams was sent off.

And this is the concern with the Smith-Barrett combination - they haven't been consistently good at adapting tactically when the opposition are shutting down their space.

They haven't shown yet the consistent ability to use their respective kicking games to change the shape of a test or to plot their way through a static encounter.

They maybe lack a little patience at times: a willingness to grind an opponent with continuous low-risk decisions that build pressure.

That's the missing part of their combination and without it they don't yet sit among the great combinations in history.

But it's a yet because they are relatively young and the schedule the All Blacks face in the next 12 months will demand they develop a greater breadth of tactical approaches and patience, discipline and control are more likely going to have to be attributes they exhibit.