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Ex-All Blacks debate who should start at No 15 against Springboks

By Alex McLeod

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Former All Blacks greats Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan have clashed over who should start at fullback for New Zealand in this week’s Rugby Championship clash against the Springboks in Townsville.

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The test will be a momentous occasion for the two sides given it will be their 100th meeting, and with the All Blacks 10 points clear at the top of the Rugby Championship table, the match acts as a chance for them to clinch the title for the first time since 2018.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the All Blacks are expected to name a full-strength side to face the South Africans, who head into the contest as rank outsiders following two surprise defeats at the hands of the Wallabies over the past fortnight.

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Just who exactly makes up the first-choice All Blacks side won’t be revealed until Thursday, but Wilson and Kirwan have differing opinions over who should make the cut in the No 15 jersey.

Speaking on The Breakdown on Monday, Kirwan asked who Wilson believed will start at fullback, and the former 60-test international argued that Damian McKenzie warrants starting honours in his preferred position.

McKenzie’s standing as the preferred fullback option was reflected by his selection at No 15 in two of the biggest matches thus far this year in the opening two Bledisloe Cup tests against the Wallabies in Auckland last month.

The 26-year-old also ended the mid-year test series against Tonga and Fiji as the premier All Blacks fullback, and has started in four of New Zealand’s eight tests in the No 15 jersey this year, while also earning an additional start at No 10 against Los Pumas last weekend.

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By contrast, fellow fullback Jordie Barrett has also started four of the eight All Blacks tests from the No 15 jersey this year, including in three of the side’s most recent matches.

One of those outings came in the dead-rubber Bledisloe Cup clash against the Wallabies in Perth, a game of which Barrett was given a red card, that was later rescinded, for a flying kick to the face of Australian wing Marika Koroibete.

The other two recent appearances were against Argentina in matches where the All Blacks made sweeping changes to their starting team, seemingly in preparation for their upcoming pair of tests against the Springboks.

Those facts underpin the perception that McKenzie has established himself as the first-choice All Blacks fullback, and Wilson said the 35-test playmaker’s attacking exploits should keep him at the top of the pecking order for this weekend’s match.

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“I still think it’s Damian McKenzie,” Wilson said when asked by Kirwan who will don the No 15 jersey.

“There’s no doubt Jordie Barrett was better on the weekend. I still think that his impact can be off the bench. I still like that combination with Beauden Barrett and first-five and McKenzie [at fullback]. I think that’s what they’ve banked on. He’s done a good job for them.

“What I’ve seen, particularly out of the Wallabies which put the Springboks under so much pressure, was the fact the more you play and [keep] the ball in play, to me, against the Springboks, will be our ally.

“When we’ve got guys who can create, I think that’s going to put them under so much pressure. We’ve got to look to counter-attack if they kick us the ball.”

Wilson’s response was questioned further by Kirwan, who said the younger Barrett brother was the better option to face the Springboks.

The 1987 World Cup-winner labelled the Springboks as predictable as he described them as a “northern hemisphere-style team” that struggled to compete with the pace of which the Wallabies played at on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane.

It’s for that reason, he said, that Barrett’s height advantage and his long-range goal-kicking ability could prove to be valuable against the South Africans, whose kicking game has become a hallmark of their style of play.

“You know what South Africa are going to throw at you now, right,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

“You just know, and that’s why I was really interested about your comment, Goldie [Wilson], about Damian playing at fullback.

“You’ve got a 20-foot fullback [Barrett] who’s playing at the moment under the high ball, I just think he might be a tactically better option, plus he can kick it from 55 yards. I’m sure McKenzie can, but I just think they’re a northern hemisphere team.”

Kirwan added that McKenzie’s influence off the bench has the potential to wreak havoc against a tiring South African defence.

“I think we bring Damian on late, last 30 minutes when the Springboks are getting tired, as a tactical move,” he said.

“I think either or at fullback, to be fair, but I think Damian coming off the bench, we missed him at the World Cup. When sides are getting tired, he’s absolutely devastating.”

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Ex-All Blacks debate who should start at No 15 against Springboks

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