'Even their class moments in the first half, he was at 10': The case for shifting Damian McKenzie to first receiver
In the Chiefs’ long overdue win over the Hurricanes on Saturday night, the start of the victor’s remarkable comeback coincided with Damian McKenzie shifting from fullback to first five and the Chiefs coaches will be in two minds this week over whether the pocket rocked warrants a permanent place in the No 10 jersey.
The Hurricanes racked up three tries and held a 26-7 lead in the first half, with the Chiefs were staring down the barrel of a 12th successive loss until a momentum-shifting try to Chase Tiatia.
Tiatia entered the match in the 52nd minute in place of No 10 Kaleb Trask. The substitution saw McKenzie move to first five, with Tiatia taking over at fullback. Just five minutes after the change, Tiatia found himself on the end of a team-try that had all kicked off from a scrum penalty just five metres out from the Chiefs’ line.
The Chiefs went in again from the following kick-off, with McKenzie sparking a long-range contender for try of the season that featured some wonderful support play from the likes of Samipeni Finau, Brad Weber and Tiatia – plus an audacious offload from the replacement fullback.
Two more tries to forwards Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Luke Jacobson sealed the game for the Chiefs, 35-29, and now Clayton McMillan and his assistants will be considering some lineup changes ahead of the Chiefs’ upcoming match against the Blues.
Illustrating the difficult task ahead of McMillan and co, Aotearoa Rugby Pod panellists James Parsons and Bryn Hall were undecided on whether McKenzie should be named at No 10 from the get-go, instead of starting matches at fullback then shifting in-field later in the game.
“When [McKenzie] steps up to first receiver, things happen for the Chiefs,” Parsons said. “Whether he has to start at 10, I’m not too sure.
“Even their class moments in the first half, he was at 10, if you think about it. Kaleb Trask’s try, Damo was at first receiver. He cut that guy and he put Samisoni [Taukei’aho] through that hole.”
The Blues centurion acknowledged that it wasn’t just McKenzie’s presence at first receiver that changed the flow of the game, however.
“I really think Damian McKenzie’s one of the best fullbacks in the world and I just like him at fullback,” he said, “But, I’m also aware of the performance of Chase Tiatia and the energy he brought, the game changed when he came on.
“He’s an infectious player. Wing’s not a spot for him, midfield’s not a spot for him. If he’s going to start, he probably has to [play] fullback, which then you have to consider that Damo will be at 10.
“I think [Tiatia’s] a fullback; you need him in those open spaces and that freedom to roam. He’s a livewire, you want him to have that full length of the field ability to roam, you don’t want him to just be protecting the corner and, defensively, having to be in that pendulum where he’s got to be up high. Whereas that fullback role, if there’s any kick, he can make something out of nothing.”
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Hall, whose Crusaders side bested the Blues on Sunday and are sitting pretty on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder, suggested that while McKenzie’s shift into first five no doubt sparked the turn-around in the Chiefs’ fortunes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that starting him at No 10 is the best option.
“When you inject Damo at 10 [late in the match], it’s a little bit different than when you start a game and you’ve got to manage a game,” he said. “Do you get the same effect if he comes into 10 at the first minute compared to the 50th minute? Because I just feel that the game’s in the balance there, it’s a little bit more open, benches are coming on a little bit more and so the legs are taken out of you a little bit so then Damo can roam a little bit.
“But then you’ve got to reward Chase Tiatia, who was outstanding in the weekend – probably the difference, actually, to bringing that momentum back for the Chiefs. So, you’ve got to start having the conversation.”
McKenzie made his debut for the Chiefs in the No 10 jersey, guiding the team to a 23-18 over the Blues at Eden Park in 2015. In his six and a bit season of Super Rugby, McKenzie has played 60 games at fullback and 20 at first five – with the majority of those appearances at No 10 coming in the 2018 season.
It’s a similar story at international level, with McKenzie starting just a solitary match against France at pivot.
A pre-season start at No 10 earlier this year signalled that McMillan wasn’t dead-set on McKenzie’s role for the 2021 campaign and he’s regularly signposted that, at least in the latter stages of matches, we should expect to see the utility back playing at first receiver.
Both Parsons and Hall acknowledged that the difference between playing at No 10 and No 15 are becoming smaller and smaller, however, with both positions expected to handle playmaking duties.
“It will have to change his mindset against different teams that bring different defensive pictures but it’s six of one, half a dozen [of the other],” Parsons said. “You’re going to have less time but, as I said, that first try to Trask, [McKenzie] naturally does step up to first receiver when he’s in the 15 jersey anyway. So it won’t be that big a change. And sometimes a 10 drops back into the backfield so it’s not a massive shift.”
“I think it’s the way New Zealand teams play, having those two pivots,” said Hall. “There’s not a lot of change between 15 coming into 10 and Damo’s done it a long time, being in both positions, having a pretty good understanding of what it looks like.”
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The North Harbour pair said that, as both opposition players and fans, it’s in broken-field play that you really notice McKenzie shining.
“As a player, you’re on high alert when you see Damian McKenzie roaming around – especially off counter-attack,” Hall said. “He’s world-class when he gets to that counter-attack. There are little breaks in the line, he’s looking for that prop or that lock he can go at – like he did for that try where Weber scored.”
“You see the blonde head, the blond mullet just sprinting in, that injection into the line – that’s when I get excited as a fan, you just see him come from the backfield on that wide-angle and you just know something’s going to happen,” said Parsons. “That’s when I think he’s at his best and he’s dancing around.”
The Chiefs host the Blues at Waikato Stadium on Saturday evening. While a loss wouldn’t be season-ending for the home side, it would make the road ahead very difficult. Now that the monkey of a record losing streak is off their backs, however, they’ll enter the game with a new-found conviction that 2021 could still be their year.
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