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Damian McKenzie's freewheeling style is better suited for Super Rugby

By Hamish Bidwell
Damian McKenzie of New Zealand charges forward during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabies at Forsyth Barr Stadium on August 05, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

I enjoy watching Damian McKenzie play for the Chiefs.


But, as I’ve said plenty of times before, I don’t see a place for him in Test match rugby.

Good on the All Blacks for beating Australia 23-20, in Dunedin on Saturday. I mean it was better than losing to them, after all.

I heard a bit of talk afterwards from the team about the defence getting them back into the game. Maybe. But that ignores the fact that the real change in that game came at first five-eighth.

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Once Richie Mo’unga replaced McKenzie, the All Blacks went back to what’s worked so well for them in 2023.

They were direct, they were abrasive, they stopped throwing and kicking the ball away frivolously.

Honestly, the first half of that match was a shambles, typified by the mad-cap approach that often works well for McKenzie at Super Rugby level.

Once Mo’unga became the game-driver, the eventual outcome of the match was assured.

Points Flow Chart

New Zealand win +3
Time in lead
Mins in lead
% Of Game In Lead
Possession Last 10 min
Points Last 10 min

So, there’s a few things there.

First, I just think it’s daft to give McKenzie the keys to the car and expect effective rugby.

Second, was McKenzie freelancing on Saturday or playing to the gameplan given to him?

And, third, why did it take a change at 10 to make the necessary adjustments?

Is no-one able to take a first five aside and say ‘this isn’t working’? Or would it simply fall on deaf ears where a man of McKenzie’s mercurial talents are concerned?

If it’s the latter, then I go back to what I said about him being unsuitable for Test rugby.

I can’t forget the recent Super Rugby Pacific final, for instance, where the frenetic Chiefs were eventually ground down by the relentless Crusaders. I know which method I think works.

I try not to be lured in by clickbait, so I don’t know the justification for the recent writing off of Sam Whitelock. But I do remember headlines suggesting the veteran lock was past it and would battle to make New Zealand’s best XV from here on.


In Whitelock, Scott Barrett and the now-dinged up Brodie Retallick, the All Blacks possess three world-class locks. I still think Barrett has a bit to offer on the blindside, but that’s not my call.

What I do know is that the All Blacks wouldn’t have beaten the Wallabies on Saturday if Whitelock wasn’t on the field.

That’s partly what left me so baffled by the footy McKenzie was allowed to play for so long in Dunedin. For the life of me, I can’t believe Whitelock wouldn’t have dragged his battered old body out of another ruck and said ‘we need to start playing smarter’. Or words to that effect.

The bottom line is the risk of starting McKenzie in proper Test matches outweighs the reward.

I’m not sure how much more evidence we need of that.


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