There were four new debutants and a host of new starters but the All Blacks machine kept rolling last night, comprehensively signing off a 3-nil series victory over France with a 49-14 win in the final test.
The game followed a similar script to the first test, with French spirit keeping them in the match for a half or so before they wore down and became fodder. On the fast indoor pitch in Dunedin the All Blacks went to width frequently and played an expansive game, in the process unleashed the full potential of dynamo Damian McKenzie in his first start at first five-eighth.
Again the individual brilliance was on show intertwined with moments of underwhelming play. One minute he’s kicking out on the full with no pressure and the next deftly chipping the line with the left foot or ripping a pass to an unmarked runner. It seems that errors fuel McKenzie into a high-octane state, where he starts shakey before ripping apart all before him in an explosive frenzy. The lows are low and highs are sky high.
There might not be a more enigmatic player in world rugby. How do you filter out the ‘minus’ plays and keep the brilliant? This is the puzzle the All Blacks coaches want to solve, as the answer may uncover the world’s next best player – that’s how influential he can be.
In a 15-minute period in second half he scored his second try and set up two more, at a crucial time in the game to pull the All Blacks away. They persisted with similar patterns the Chiefs have used with McKenzie at 10 this year to give the bite-sized first five his favoured plays.
The backdoor release freed McKenzie from the second level all night where he attacked a pensive, slowing defensive line. The All Blacks went heavy on this pod release play to give McKenzie the ball as much as possible coming from depth and allow more width in the game in general.
Of the 15 times McKenzie lined up behind the first pod, they fed him nine times out the back, 60% of the time. That’s a huge amount considering forwards often keep it simple, showing how much the All Blacks wanted to stretch this French side laterally.
In the 53rd minute, the play paid off when he knifed through a yawning gap between two props and ran circles around winger Gael Fickou to score untouched. When a defender bites hard on the tip runner, McKenzie is given an invitation to take on the line, which he has no hesitation in doing.
One of the change-ups they run is switching McKenzie with Ben Smith so he can attack wider as a fullback. They tried this twice in the match and surprisingly it led to one intercept and one dropped intercept. Despite many holding the opinion that his best position is still fullback, his worst plays of the night came from that role.
His touches at first receiver in flatter situations started to show signs of confidence, with no qualms about throwing rocket cutouts, which he shelved last week. Despite those two dicey intercept chances, he hit the money on a beautiful try assist to Rieko Ioane, throwing a face ball past Jordie Barrett. His line running was finally on the same page with Aaron Smith, scoring off the scrum despite a dubious call by the referee. This was the same play that McKenzie tried to cut under Smith on last week, causing a turnover on the communication blunder.
The All Blacks have implemented some new exit strategies around McKenzie, opting for him to kick directly off the base of the scrum instead of using a two-phase setup. Despite his diminutive stature, the purchase he gets on his kick is quite remarkable. He can thump it a good 55-60 metres, often finding a decent angle when clearing to the line.
He hit seven from seven off the tee in a faultless display of goal kicking, but it was a couple of unforced errors from kicking out-of-hand that had doubters shaking heads early. His emphatic rebound only proved that he is erratic, with such large swings in his game.
The risk/reward equation with McKenzie most definitely ended with handsome reward last night.
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