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'Our greatest impact player': Evaluating Damian McKenzie's World Cup role

By Ned Lester
Damian McKenzie with ball in hand for the All Blacks. Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images

The All Blacks No 10 jersey has been wrestled back and forth throughout this World Cup cycle, but just as it looked settled that Richie Mounga was the man to lead the charge at the World Cup, Damian McKenzie stepped in.

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Returning from a one-year contract with Japan’s Tokyo Sungoliath, McKenzie instantly elevated his Chiefs team to the top side in Super Rugby Pacific, beating Mo’unga’s Crusaders in the opening match of the season and going on to sustain just one blemish in the entire regular season.

McKenzie’s game had evolved, his erratic play was diluted by a more structural-minded attacking skillset and coach Clayton McMillan handed his flyhalf the keys to running a slick, dangerous attack.

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It was Mo’unga’s Crusaders who again had the last laugh but McKenzie had earned himself a return to higher honours and a shot at the throne.

And so in the first test of the All Blacks’ season, McKenzie was handed the keys to the All Blacks attack and after a shaky start, his quality came through.

Ian Foster handed those keys back to Richie Mo’unga a week later in Auckland and as expected, the No 10 jersey remains in the Super Rugby champion’s hands.

But it was never a starting role that McKenzie was slated for, his energetic and unpredictable play promised fans a wild game-closer and that’s where his absence has been most disappointing.

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“I think we missed him at the last World Cup,” Sir John Kirwin told The Breakdown. “I still think he’s the greatest impact player we’ve got. He’s transformed himself from a fullback to a first-five at international level. That is a talented young man.

“But he brings something different, at standoff he plays like a Rugby League standoff, runs across the field. That is gold in a World Cup.”

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Throwing a player out there who can change the attacking threat of your team like McKenzie sounds like a wonderfully chaotic way to punish teams late in the match and put close games to the sword. But, it’s not the direction selectors have taken to date.

With Beaduen Barrett claiming the fullback role, the All Blacks bench is considered better served by midfield and outside-back options, with plenty of versatility in the preferred backline making those bench selections the best bet.

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With that said, despite Beauden Barrett’s ability to play first five, Kirwin’s co-panellist Jeff Wilson believes McKenzie should be the next man up in the 10 jersey.

“It enables us to focus on Beaduen Barrett as a fullback, and it enables Beauden Barrett to focus on playing that position knowing that’s going to be that’s where he can have his biggest impact for this side.

“Now I would be surprised if at any stage anything happens to Richie Mo’unga and – I hope it doesn’t – if they move Beauden Barrett forward. I think they’ve settled on how they want to play the game and Beauden’s owning that backfield with the option of Will Jordan moving back there as well.”

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John 344 days ago

Kirwan yet again demonstrating why he was a failure as a coach. Sure he was a great player but obviously one of those who’s skills end with that. DMac is poor when pressured and throws stupid passes when pressured. He’s better at 15 because he has a better chance at seeing the space there. In Super rugby he’s a passable 10 but at the next level he’s a bit of a liability

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Shaylen 6 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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FEATURE Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma
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