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Damian McKenzie is no better than when he started his All Blacks career

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images)

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I’d be quite happy never to see Damian McKenzie don an All Blacks jumper again.

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I’ve no quarrel with the man, there’s nothing about him that offends or upsets me. Nor would I question his Super Rugby performances or talent.

It’s just that, on the test rugby stage, it feels as if we’ve seen all there is to see.

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McKenzie is not New Zealand’s best fullback. That’s Jordie Barrett, by a wide margin.

Barrett’s form this test season is a credit to him, not least because he’s one of the few All Blacks you would say replicates or betters their franchise efforts.

We say test rugby is a step up and actually sometimes it is. But often, with 2021 being a case in point, the opponents are so short of Super Rugby standard it’s not funny.

Tonga, Fiji, the United States, Italy; they’d arguably all go a Super season without victory.

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Wales and Australia might nick a game off the Highlanders or Hurricanes, but it’s hard to see them troubling the Crusaders or Blues any time soon.

I’ll return to the idea of players not regularly replicating their Super Rugby form, but first back to McKenzie.

The guy has skills and an appealing touch of cheek. He’s ambitious and unpredictable and a handy goalkicker too.

But, as test rugby’s played these days, he’s not the bloke I want under high balls.

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Teams seem pretty happy to kick to the All Blacks, and provided those kicks are contestable and the chase is a good one, then often it’s effective.

When the kick’s too deep and the defensive line’s staggered, then look out.

This All Blacks team still needs to evolve. There remain a number of positions still up for grabs, plus some indecision about how the team should actually play.

Barrett is one player who demands selection in every test of consequence, but we still need a back-up.

I’m not convinced McKenzie is that guy. I think he lacks the solidity and dependability and accuracy to be a test fullback.

I also suspect he’s become a bit diminutive to bring the ball back against advancing defences.

I’d like to see Will Jordan tried at fullback instead. Partly because I believe he’s a good option there, but also to give Sevu Reece more opportunity on the right wing.

Beyond Jordan, David Havili appeals as a superior option to McKenzie at 15 as well.

I’d also, when it comes to the back-three, like to see some recognition of who’s actually playing.

It’s fine, if predictable, that the All Blacks like to have the blindside wing cart the ball up from set pieces. And if that wing is Jonah Lomu or Va’aiga Tuigamala or Rieko Ioane, then happy days.

But, as it was against Italy, that wing is little old George Bridge and he’s being pounded by a set defensive line, then surely we have enough nous to try something different.

Good on Bridge for sacrificing his body for the cause, but come on.

I’d say the form of most of the All Blacks this season has been adequate.

A few players, such as Jordie and Beauden Barrett, Jordan, Ardie Savea and Sam Whitelock have been consistently good, but not many.

I reckon that’s a coaching issue. I mean, it’s not as if the All Blacks are up against elite opposition each week.

And yet, unless they seize on a bad kick-chase, when do New Zealand’s backs bust any defences open?

With all due respect to Wales and Italy, neither of them are particularly good. Try as the All Blacks might, though, they couldn’t beat either by playing their preferred brand of rugby.

No, they had to tuck the ball up the jumper and play almost entirely through the forwards.

How was it that the Italy test went on so long before someone recognised that trying to shift the ball was a waste of time?

It’s hard not to feel as if this All Blacks team – particularly the backs – has been failed by its coaches. One way or another Ian Foster, for instance, has been involved since 2012 and yet which backs have improved or at least lived up to their Super Rugby billing in that time?

It’s surely not an issue of talent, as evidenced by McKenzie. He’s as gifted as anyone but, 39 games into his All Blacks career, McKenzie is no better than when he started.

He may even be worse and, on that basis, it’s time for someone else to show if they’re better equipped to deal with the coaching and tactical inadequacies the team appear stuck with.

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Damian McKenzie is no better than when he started his All Blacks career

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