Composed Damian McKenzie 'a little bit guilty of underplaying'
After a hectic performance in the final half-hour against Argentina last weekend, Damian McKenzie reined in his game at No 10 this week and delivered a calm display for the All Blacks in just his second start in the key playmaker role.
New Zealand had already built a 29-0 when McKenzie was injected off the bench in the 50th minute as a replacement for Beauden Barrett last Sunday.
Despite still dominating possession and territory, the All Blacks’ play became somewhat helter-skelter and unpolished once the substitutes joined the fray, with the team only recording a further 10 points over the final thirty minutes of action.
While McKenzie certainly wasn’t the only man to perhaps overplay his hand, the five-eighth probably needed to calm his troops as the key game controller and words would have undoubtedly been had following the game.
Ahead of the rematch with the Pumas, coach Ian Foster was confident that McKenzie – named to start at No 10 for the All Blacks for the first time since 2018 – could control the proceedings as needed, despite his relatively limited experience in the jersey.
“He’s trained a lot there. He has filled in at times. He’s clearly started there before in a pretty big test match and did that pretty well,” Foster said. “He played 35 minutes last week against Argentina and he’s got a clear understanding of his role in the Rugby Championship.
“We’ve clearly only got two guys who play 10 in terms of a specialist-type area, with Richie not here, and I actually think it’s a common-sense selection in terms of managing Beaudy for the next couple of weeks. But also it’s a vote of confidence that we think he’s really progressing in that position.”
“Circumstances have demanded we give him a run at 10,” Foster added. “And he’s played a number of Super Rugby games there, he’s trained a lot for us, he’s filled in for us, he’s started for us so I don’t think it’s that big a deal really.”
McKenzie himself acknowledged ahead of the game that he’d be performing a different role this weekend.
“It’s completely different,” he said. “Everyone is ready to roar into it in the first 20 minutes, and later in the game play starts to open up a bit more. I tend to enjoy that style of game when it opens up and everyone tires a bit.
“It will be different this week starting. It’s about trying to break the opposition down and playing our game. I’m excited about the challenge.”
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Certainly, McKenzie was a considerably more composed figure in last night’s match compared to a week prior.
Operating in tandem with Jordie Barrett at fullback, McKenzie faded into the background as opposed to stealing the limelight, and laid the ball out on a platter for his backline runners.
On one occasion in the first half, he dinked the ball over the top of the onrushing Argentinian defence, almost creating a try for the men in black, then delivered a pinpoint pass for a rushing All Blacks attacker moments later to hit another gaping hole.
He was also confident on defence and nabbed two turnovers for his side.
Following the match, Foster was pleased with his No 10’s performance – though felt that McKenzie perhaps went into his shell somewhat.
“I liked his composure tonight, I thought he dealt with the challenge really, really well,” said Foster. “Second start in the All Blacks [at No 10] but he’s experienced at 10.
“If anything, he was probably a little bit guilty of underplaying his hand, like he had more to offer. So I was quite excited about his progress.”
With Richie Mo’unga returning to test duty ahead of the trip to Europe, and Beauden Barrett likely to wear No 10 for the coming matches with the Springboks, McKenzie’s time at first receiver could be done and dusted for the year, but Foster will be content that he has a ready-made option to call upon if needed.
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