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Chiefs consider McKenzie switch

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Chiefs consider positional switch for Damian McKenzie

Chiefs coach Colin Cooper isn’t ruling out the prospect of switching star playmaker Damian McKenzie back to fullback from his incumbent first-five role in an attempt to turn around his side’s fortunes following a horror start to their 2019 campaign.

The Chiefs have endured their worst start to a season in 12 years, losing their four opening matches to find themselves anchored at the bottom of the Super Rugby standings with just one point to their name.

A narrow season-opening loss to the Highlanders in Hamilton showed plenty of promise, with rookie winger Etene Nanai-Seturo and All Blacks midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown particular standouts in the 30-27 loss.

However, a 37-point drubbing at the hands of the Brumbies in Canberra, a first-ever defeat to the Sunwolves at home, and a record 57-28 thrashing from the Crusaders last week has swiftly diminished hope of the Chiefs reaching the potential imminent within their squad.

Their quest for a first up victory in 2019 isn’t going to get any easier this weekend, as they prepare to host a Hurricanes side that is beginning to find their mojo after a slow start as they welcome back their key players.

In a bid to counter his side’s misfortune, Cooper is weighing up the idea of reverting his underperforming pivot McKenzie, who has been a regular starter at first-five for the Chiefs since the departure of Aaron Cruden to Montpellier in 2017, back to fullback, where he began his career with the franchise four years ago.

“There’s always that thought, I’ve said before we’ll do what’s best for the team,” Cooper told reporters in Hamilton on Monday.

“We know what he can bring.”

McKenzie has made a name for himself in recent seasons as an electrifying player, with his speed and agility making him a dangerous prospect at fullback in his first three seasons of Super Rugby.

However, while still proving to be a handful for opposition defences after shifting to first-five at the start of last year to fill the void left by Cruden, he has struggled to prove his composure and match temperament as a leading Super Rugby playmaker.

He has occasionally been deployed there at test level by All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen, who has previously spoken of McKenzie’s potential as a first-five, but has continued to regularly play him as a fullback.

If McKenzie was to be named at fullback for the Hurricanes clash this week, former Rebels first-five Jack Debreczeni would be the leading candidate to take the playmaking reins at first-five.

Debreczeni signed for the Chiefs after impressing in the Mitre 10 Cup for Northland following his release from the Rebels last year, and made his debut for the club against the Crusaders from off the bench, marking the occasion with a well-taken try.

Other potential options include Damian’s older brother Marty McKenzie, former All Blacks cult hero Stephen Donald, and young midfielder Orbyn Leger, who started at first-five against the Highlanders amid an injury crisis which saw both the McKenzie’s and Tiaan Falcon, who is ruled out for the remainder of the campaign, miss the season-opener.

“He showed he’s got experience, he’s certainly professional, and he’s got a lot of leadership qualities at 10,” Cooper said of Debreczeni, who missed the first three matches of the year with an abdominal strain.

“So has Marty McKenzie, so has Beaver (Stephen Donald).

“So we’ve got some choices there, along with Damian.”

A win against the Hurricanes will be much-needed for the Chiefs, especially with a daunting two-week tour to South Africa and Argentina to face the high-flying Bulls and Jaguares to follow after this weekend’s clash.

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Chiefs consider positional switch for Damian McKenzie