Back where he belongs: Why Damian McKenzie needs to stay at fullback
It’s a position that the 23-year-old has made a big impression in since bursting onto the Super Rugby scene with the Chiefs in 2015, and despite the club’s best efforts to play him as a first-five to fill the void left by veteran pivot Aaron Cruden in 2017, it’s fullback where he’s proving to be most valuable.
He missed their tight season-opening defeat at the hands of the Highlanders in Hamilton through injury, but when he returned to the starting side for their clash against the Brumbies in Canberra, he wasn’t able to turn his side’s fortunes around as they stumbled to a record 54-17 defeat.
McKenzie played in all three of those humiliating fixtures, starting every time at first-five.
In recent seasons, he has built a reputation for himself as someone who can set a match alight from nothing with a sudden burst through the opposition’s defensive line using his sharp footwork and lightning speed.
For a professional rugby player as small as him – standing at 1.77m and 78kg – he needs those attributes in order to survive on the field, and when playing in the right position, he utilises those attributes to thrive and standout to not only make him one of the most exciting players to watch in Super Rugby, but also one of the most important players at the Chiefs.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, McKenzie was not being played in the right position in those three games against the Brumbies, Sunwolves and Crusaders.
Sure, he has the playmaking ability to sufficiently direct his side throughout Super Rugby as a first-five, but if the Chiefs really wanted to capitalise on the talents that McKenzie can offer them, then they needed to play him at fullback where he could have made the most of broken defensive lines on the counter-attack and the open pasture in front of him further out in the backline.
Playing much further in-field at first-five significantly restricted McKenzie’s capacity to run with as much freedom and impulsiveness compared to when he’s playing fullback, such is the nature of the first-five position where he is confronted with much more traffic in a lot tighter spaces.
Without that freedom while in possession of the ball, McKenzie’s strengths were not being played to, and the Chiefs subsequently suffered for it in the opening month of Super Rugby.
However, with the Chiefs reaching crisis point in round five with no wins on the board as they prepared to host the star-studded Hurricanes, head coach Colin Cooper made the critical change which saw McKenzie move to fullback.
He won’t have regretted that shift, as the Chiefs are now two games undefeated following a 23-23 draw with the Hurricanes and 56-20 thumping of the Bulls in Pretoria last weekend.
There is no doubt that McKenzie’s positional switch played a big role in the Chiefs’ turnaround, as is reflected in his match statistics.
In his first three appearances at first-five, McKenzie scored no tries and assisted just one, while his back-to-back outings at fullback have seen him score his maiden five-pointer of 2019, while assisting another three.
His average running metres have catapulted from 30.3m to 72m since moving into the backfield, while he has claimed his first four clean breaks of the year and has, on average, beaten more defenders per match than he did at first-five.
McKenzie’s statistical boost obviously has a direct correlation to the Chiefs’ vastly-improved results, and while Cooper remained coy about where he intends to play the 23-cap test star in future following the Bulls clash, he should know where he belongs.
Regardless of who is running the cutter at first-five, whether it be Jack Debreczeni, Marty McKenzie, Stephen Donald or even Orbyn Leger, as long as Damian McKenzie remains at fullback, the Chiefs can expect to overturn their horrific start to the year.
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