Two of New Zealand’s top Super Rugby figures have weighed in on who they think should start at fullback for the All Blacks out of Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie.
The duo will go head-to-head with themselves and a raft of other candidates – including Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan and David Havili – for New Zealand’s fullback spot in what will be one of the most tightly-contested positions in Ian Foster’s squad.
All five players bring with them standout qualities that make them bona fide contenders to don the No 15 jersey in the test arena, but the younger Barrett brother and McKenzie have been two of the stars of this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
The latter has been heavily involved in both of the Chiefs’ victories over the past fortnight, with his 80th minute try securing his side a dramatic 15-12 upset win over the Blues in Hamilton on Saturday.
The week before that, the 25-year-old was in sensational form to help guide his side to a 35-29 comeback win over the Hurricanes in Wellington.
It’s for that reason that Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall lathered McKenzie in praise during the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
In the game against the Hurricanes, McKenzie was used at first-five despite playing most of the match from fullback, and the positional switch – as well as his partnership with Chase Tiatia – was the catalyst for the Chiefs’ drought-breaking victory.
That led to questions being raised over whether the 27-test All Black should be used primarily at No 10, a tactic that was trialled by the Chiefs and All Blacks in 2018, but Hall was adamant McKenzie should start at fullback before moving into the pivot .
“He’s in top form, isn’t he,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“We talked about it before, around whether he’s going to be at 10 or 15, but I guess what they’re doing, they’re persisting at the moment, they’re getting that genuine 10 with [Kaleb] Trask, whether that be bringing the future, having them start the game.
“We’ve talked a lot around bringing him [McKenzie] in that last 20-25 minutes when teams are tired, reserves are coming on and the game’s a little bit more open, and he can bring his counter-attack game.
“He can rove around and he can pop up in spaces like he did on the weekend, just [like] with that try with Luke Jacobson, beating him around the ball.
“They’ve got some good fullbacks at the moment. We haven’t even talked about Jordie, who scored 30 points on the weekend, so no doubt we’ll get to that, but I’d probably like to see them stick with that.
“Keep Damian at No 15 and then bring him into 10 for that last 20-25 minutes when the game’s really open and he can immerse himself in that running rugby.”
What’s a guy to do if he wants to wrestle the No 7 jersey off the #AllBlacks captain? @BluesRugbyTeam‘s Dalton Papalii is certainly making a good fist of it at this stage of the season. #SuperRugbyAotearoa #CHIvBLUhttps://t.co/JFX8lmgKpD
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 29, 2021
However, former Blues hooker and Hall’s ex-North Harbour teammate James Parsons conceded that while he was a self-confessed fan of McKenzie, he believed Barrett has the upper hand due to his influence within the Hurricanes side.
The 24-year-old was instrumental in his side’s 30-19 victory over the Highlanders last week as he scored all of his team’s points via a hat-trick of tries, three conversions and three penalties.
It follows a string of good performances that began last year when he flourished in the absence of his brother Beauden, who defected to the Blues before joining Top League side Suntory Sungoliath on a six-month sabbatical this year.
Emerging from the shadow of the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year, Barrett was one of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s most valuable players in 2020, and the 23-test international has continued that vein of form into this season, as evidenced by his massive points haul in Dunedin last Friday.
Parsons said all of that has culminated in Barrett earning the upper hand when it comes to who should start at fullback for the All Blacks this year.
“I’ve been a Damo fan for a long time, I think everyone knows that, but I think Jordie’s probably got the inside running due to last year’s form at No 15,” the two-test All Black told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“He’s probably been in that wing spot due to his brother [Beauden] being there [at fullback], so he’s now backing it up, so he’s probably got the first right of way.
“Obviously Damo can maybe pick up that bench spot, and if he goes down, he’ll be next in line, but that’s the beauty of that depth. The only theory I can go with is the fact that… last year’s form has now been carried on and that’s how they normally work.”
In the wake of the Hurricanes’ victory over the Highlanders, Barrett made no secret to the media that he wants to play at fullback, with Hurricanes boss Jason Holland labelling him as a “world-class No 15, and he’s not a world-class No 10”.
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It comes after the franchise lost both of their contracted first-fives, Jackson Garden-Bachop (achilles) and Simon Hickey (knee), to season-ending injuries.
Given Barrett’s versatility across the backline – he has played in every position bar halfback throughout age-grade, provincial, Super Rugby and test level – Parsons said there would have been a temptation from the Hurricanes coaches to move Barrett to No 10 to fill that void.
The Wellington-based side have evidently resisted that urge, and have held their stance on the matter, which Parsons said was commendable from both parties.
“It’s just been a continuation of that form that you can’t ignore, and, man, he’s in touch and he’s made a statement and he’s like, ‘I don’t want to play anywhere else’,” he said.
“Especially at such a crucial time where Jackson Garden-Bachop has gone down, it would have been so easy to put him in at 10 for those Hurricanes coaches, and he obviously stood pretty strong to say, ‘No, I can do my best footy from 15’.”
The race for the national No 15 jersey continue this week when Barrett and the Hurricanes take on the Blues at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
In the Friday night game, the Crusaders will host the Highlanders in the second edition of the South Island derby in Christchurch this weekend, while McKenzie and the Chiefs will enter their second bye week of the season.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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