Come the end of the 2018 test season, Damian McKenzie was in the driver’s seat to wear the No. 15 jersey at the 2019 World Cup. Almost two years later, McKenzie is now tasked with simply trying to reclaim a spot in the matchday 23.
When Ian Foster named his squad for the opening Bledisloe Cup match of the year, few were surprised at McKenzie’s omission.
The 25-year-old had spent the majority of 2019 recovering from a ruptured ACL suffered during the Chiefs’ Super Rugby campaign and wasn’t yet back to his old self during this year’s Super competition.
Perhaps if the All Blacks weren’t quite so blessed with riches in the outside backs, McKenzie may have had a look in. As it stands, however, Will Jordan and Beauden and Jordie Barrett all outplayed the Chief during Super Rugby Aotearoa and the once-incumbent now has a massive challenge on his hands.
Beauden Barrett’s minor ACL strain has rocketed McKenzie straight back into the starting XV, with Jordie Barrett to remain on the right wing. The uncapped Jordan, meanwhile, will have to wait at least another week for his test debut.
McKenzie won’t need to be told that a big game is required – he always plays at a million miles a minute and never takes his foot of the gas regardless of what’s on the line.
And while he may not have stood out quite like the Barretts during Super Rugby Aotearoa, his form for Waikato during the opening two rounds of the Mitre 10 Cup should reassure any sceptics that the pocket rocket is 100% fit and ready for play.
In fact, McKenzie remains the second top points scorer in this year’s competition, just behind Bryn Gatland, despite having played in only two of Waikato’s five matches.
But that all counts for nought on Sunday afternoon, when McKenzie will don the black jersey for the first time since November 2018.
The fullback brings a unique skillset back into the All Blacks fold. While he’s perhaps not quite as suited for playing the structured game as Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett, he still possesses the incredible X-factor that was sorely missed by New Zealand in last year’s semi-final loss to England.
On that 2018 end of year tour, McKenzie was the only player that seriously threatened the English and Irish defence. His try in dire conditions was enough for the All Blacks to nab a win over England, but even he wasn’t enough on his own to get his team across the line against a fierce Irish side.
And although McKenzie may not be quite as reliable as Jordie Barrett in the fullback position, he’s spent enough time at first five to operate as a genuine second playmaker on the park and should take some of the pressure off Richie Mo’unga.
It will be the first time that Mo’unga and McKenzie have started a match together for the All Blacks and Foster will be interested to see how the pair work together to get the All Blacks ticking. It will also be the first time that Mo’unga has started a test against a tier one team without Beauden Barrett backing him up from fullback.
The Cantabrian has grown more impressive with every season of professional rugby under his belt, however, and Foster will be confident that the Super Rugby Aotearoa title winner can guide the All Blacks around the park.
With McKenzie and Jordie Barrett also on deck, offering plenty of advice, Mo’unga won’t be short of playmaking options ready to step in and fill the first receiver position should he need a quick break from the action.
Barrett, of course, has been criticised in the past for his decision making – but few could have found fault with his performances throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa.
2020 marks the start of a new era of All Blacks rugby. With Ian Foster taking over as head coach, he still has plenty of time to make a call on the playmaking structure of his backline. Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga all have plenty to prove in the first Bledisloe Cup match of the year.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now