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'It's up there': How McKenzie is planning for biggest test at No 10

By Alex McLeod

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All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie hasn’t shied away from the fact this weekend’s re-match against Los Pumas will be his biggest test yet in the No 10 jersey.

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As part of an overhaul from All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, McKenzie has been named to start at first-five for just the second time in his international career.

With squad rotation paramount amid the chaotic travel restrictions in which the Rugby Championship is being played under, and with the end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere still to come, McKenzie finds himself at No 10 for the All Blacks the first time since 2018.

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All Blacks boss Ian Foster talks Damian McKenzie’s selection at No 10 against Los Pumas
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All Blacks boss Ian Foster talks Damian McKenzie’s selection at No 10 against Los Pumas

In Dunedin three years ago, McKenzie tore a depleted French side apart in his maiden outing as an All Blacks pivot during a dead-rubber outing in the final instalment of that three-match series.

The circumstances of this match are vastly different, and it’s for that reason that the 26-year-old, who has predominantly played at fullback in test rugby, is under no illusions this week’s clash against Argentina presents a bigger challenge.

A week after the All Blacks thumped the South Americans 39-0 on the Gold Coast, the New Zealanders are aware of the potential fightback Los Pumas could hit them with at Suncorp Stadium as they look to restore to their pride.

The starting team appointed to deal with the expected Argentine resurgence in Brisbane features 11 new players, but the inclusion of McKenzie at first-five in place of the impressive Beauden Barrett is arguably the biggest talking point of the lot.

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Despite the wholesale changes, the All Blacks remain strong favourites to do the double over Argentina, but, with valuable Rugby Championship points on the line, McKenzie expects plenty of himself to ensure victory.

“It’s up there, I guess,” McKenzie told reporters when asked if this week’s test will be the biggest match of his career as a No 10.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity for myself to have a run around myself. I’ve had one start at 10 before and then come off the bench in the 10 position before for the All Blacks.

“It’s a position I’m familiar with, played a little bit there during Super [Rugby] and obviously trained a bit over here in Aussie with Baz [Barrett] and I being the 10s here, so it’s an exciting challenge, but really looking forward to it.”

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How exactly McKenzie plans on putting Los Pumas to the sword, as he did against France at Forsyth Barr Stadium, remains to be seen, but he may have to do so in a different manner than he normally would given his new role in the All Blacks.

When he doesn’t start at fullback, McKenzie often finds himself on the bench as the team’s back-up playmaking option, a role of which he flourishes in as he’s able to utilise his electric running game against tiring defences to full effect.

It might be more difficult to make such an impact from the get-go in a position far closer to the thick of the action, and that’s something of which the 34-test international has acknowledged in his preparation for this week’s contest.

“It’s completely different,” he said of his starting role this week compared to that of an impact player off the pine.

“Obviously everyone is ready to roar into it from the first 20 minutes and I guess, later in the game, play starts to open up a little bit more, so I tend to enjoy that sort of style of play when the game opens up and everyone tires a bit.

“Obviously a bit different this week starting, so I guess it’s just about trying to break the opposition down and playing our game.”

It’s for that reason that McKenzie may call on the services of fullback and good friend Jordie Barrett to help assist him in a playmaking capacity.

The added five-eighth chemistry with rookie midfielder Quinn Tupaea, McKenzie’s Chiefs teammate who will make his third test appearance from the No 12 jersey this weekend, could also help the All Blacks in their quest to stay atop the Rugby Championship table.

“It’s exciting,” McKenzie said of playing alongside the younger Barrett brother, who he has started with just twice in test rugby, but never as a dual-playmaking combo.

“Jordie plays what’s in front of him, he plays off the cuff and he’s very optimistic with his play, so that’s great to be able to play alongside him.

“I’m really excited to pair up with Jordie and obviously a lot of the other backs. We’ve got Quinn outside me, who I’ve played a bit with at the star of the year.

“It’s exciting to pair up with those guys and hopefully we can play some free-flowing footy.”

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'It's up there': How McKenzie is planning for biggest test at No 10

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