There will be a Barrett v McKenzie head-to-head No 10 match-up on Friday night in Hamilton.
Just not the one we were all expecting.
Marty McKenzie returns from injury for the Chiefs and will attempt to weave some mercurial magic into the ailing franchise’s backline blues. His younger brother Damian shifts back to fullback, from where he lit up the 2017 Super Rugby competition. Last year D Mac started 13 of his 15 games in the No 10 jersey at his own and – we suspect – the All Blacks selectors’ request. He scored six tries and 177 points, so he was still rather good. But four of his 11 test caps last year were in the No 15 jersey.
McKenzie junior is a firecracker of a player but, while he is best suited to fullback, why would you shift your best attacking player back there when your side is 0-4 and struggling to gain any forward dominance and subsequent backline flow? Will he get any ball other than on the counter-attack?
One of the issues is that McKenzie has looked distinctly off-colour in his first three outings, as though he is trying too hard. His game is prone to mistakes because he is a high risk, high reward player, but something is still not quite right. He missed the opener against the Highlanders due to injury, just the second time in four seasons that has been the case at Super level. While his goalkicking – eight from 10 – is accurate, the rest of his game looks hurried. Not many No 10s, even if you are Dan Carter, will thrive if there are other problems permeating the team. But still, that pessimistic feeling around him persists.
Beauden Barrett, conversely, is looking in fine fettle. Married life must be agreeing with him. He missed the first two matches for the Hurricanes, where they looked disjointed. Since his return, for the Brumbies and Highlanders, they look a different side. Granted, Ardie Savea is back and looking a million dollars but it is no coincidence that the 2016-17 World Rugby player of the year is back in harness and the Hurricanes are shifting up gears.
He has goal kicked almost as well as McKenzie – eight from 11 – and of course slotted the easy winning penalty goal to sink the Highlanders. He has looked understated, playing within himself, knowing he does not have to peak until around October. Other than throwing an intercept pass for Sio Tomkinson’s try, his game is free of errors.
The All Blacks selectors will have taken note. They will be relieved that Crusader Richie Mo’unga’s appears to have sorted out his goalkicking radar, and content with where Barrett is at, given we are just at March 14. But they will want McKenzie to start playing with more zip and zap.
He may find it at fullback. But if the Chiefs do not rediscover their mojo, and fast, this could be a long season for Damian McKenzie. Jordie Barrett, for one, will have taken note.
Scott Roberston following Chiefs win:
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