Former All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall has made some surprise selections while naming his Super Rugby Aotearoa Form XV for the 2021 season.
Marshall has named a Team of the Week for Sky Sport after every round of the competition, but with this year’s round-robin all but over, the 81-test international took to The Breakdown to reveal who he believed to be the best players of the campaign.
His composite side featured many players who have starred throughout the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa, such as Codie Taylor, Richie Mo’unga, Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papalii and Luke Jacobson, but some selections also raised some eyebrows.
At pains to point out that his XV was selected based purely on form and wasn’t a representation of what he thinks the All Blacks’ starting side should look like, Marshall was also quick address his shock inclusion of Chiefs star Damian McKenzie as the team’s head coach rather than at fullback.
McKenzie has been a central figure in the Hamilton franchise’s run to this weekend’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final from the No. 15 jersey but missed out on a place in Marshall’s team to Crusaders flyer Will Jordan.
Marshall explained that while he couldn’t find room for McKenzie in his playing side, he decided he could still recognise his form by picking him as the team’s head coach.
“Big talking point, and that is the coach,” the 47-year-old told The Breakdown.
“I know that I was going to get a lot of feedback from Chiefs mana territory that Damian McKenzie didn’t make it, so I’ve made him coach, but obviously I’ve selected Will Jordan ahead of him.”
When pressed by The Breakdown host and his former All Blacks teammate Jeff Wilson, Marshall later expanded on the selection of Jordan ahead of McKenzie, who has frequently won matches for the Chiefs through his late goal-kicking and try-scoring exploits this year.
In the last four matches he’s played in, McKenzie has scored the winning points in either the dying minutes of the contest, injury time or extra-time.
Against the Blues in Hamilton, the 26-year-old scored and converted an 80th minute try to secure a 15-13 win before knocking over a long-range penalty deep into extra-time to beat the Highlanders 26-23 in Dunedin two weeks later.
McKenzie followed that up with a 78th minute penalty to beat the Crusaders 26-25 in Christchurch the next week, and then booted the Chiefs to a 26-24 victory over the Hurricanes with a 45-metre penalty after 82 minutes a fortnight ago.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 4, 2021
However, Marshall said that ability to convert goal-kicking opportunities into match-winning moments should be expected of any team’s goal-kicker.
“There’s no doubt that he clutched those moments, but that’s what goal-kickers have to do, that’s what they’re required to do,” he said.
“If you decide to be a goal-kicker, it doesn’t matter if you’re kicking them in the first minute or the 82nd minute, that’s your role.”
Marshall then compared McKenzie’s season stats to Jordan’s, highlighting that the latter had scored more tries (four vs three), averaged far better running metres (784m from 60 carries vs 557m from 68 carries), made more tackle busts (25 vs 21) and made more clean breaks (10 vs five) than the former.
Ex-All Blacks utility back and fellow panellist Mils Muliaina wasn’t convinced with Marshall’s selection, though, as he believed those figures don’t tell the entire story of what makes a good fullback.
The 2011 World Cup-winner pointed to an error that Jordan made in the Crusaders’ clash against the Chiefs in Hamilton that eventually led to a try as an example of a flaw in the youngster’s game that Marshall’s statistics didn’t illustrate.
“I think he’s brilliant. Absolutely outstanding player,” Muliaina said of Jordan.
“[The Silver Lake deal] won’t necessarily see them play more rugby each year but, instead, play higher value tests.”
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 4, 2021
“In terms of the carry metres, sometimes you can’t factor that in because teams kick to you and you’ve got 50 metres to get to yourself. That’s how I got plenty of my metres, but the thing is why do they kick to you? Because they want to force a mistake.
“Teams are kicking to you, you’re getting relatively easy metres, but where I come from, from a fullback’s point-of-view, is the detail in what you do, the times that you make sure that your core role, your high ball and things like that, they come off at key moments.
“There was a time in the Chiefs vs Crusaders game where I thought he was hot. He’s scored a try in the second half, but then that one moment where he actually has to take that high ball [he failed to do so].
“Sometimes you go a little bit quiet because the game’s not coming your way. It’s that sort of stuff. It’s probably a little bit harsh, but with his skill set, he probably should have caught that, and what happens from the end of it? The Chiefs score.
“I still think there’s plenty of room for him to grow in that area in terms of keeping in the game.
“When it’s not going his way, it’s alright when you’re moving around, and that’s where the difference is, I think, for Damian McKenzie. He’s constantly thinking, he’s constantly roaming around to see what’s happening.
“There’s no stats on pressure and how you react to pressure stuff.”
The non-selection of McKenzie at fullback wasn’t the only surprise in Marshall’s Form XV, as former All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan questioned the absence of Crusaders lock Scott Barrett.
Marshall instead opted for a second row consisting of Barrett’s teammate Sam Whitelock and Blues veteran Gerard Cowley-Tuioti.
“I’ve picked Sam Whitelock, but I’ve regularly found when I was selecting my side each week that Cowley-Tuioti was in my team,” Marshall explained.
“He was in a forward pack that consistently got changed, all the time that got tweaked. He was the one rock in that team that consistently performed and stood up, [but that] doesn’t mean that Scott Barrett wouldn’t be in my All Blacks team.”
One other eye-catching selection came at halfback, where Chiefs co-captain Brad Weber beat out Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith for a place in Marshall’s side.
He reasoned that the rise of Folau Fakatava at the Highlanders has provided Smith with “some challenges” at the franchise this season.
Marshall added that, by comparison, Weber has been consistent in his efforts for the Chiefs leading into their final clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch this Saturday.
“Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, people will sort of wonder about that, but I think he’s had some challenges this year,” he said.
“Nuggy [Smith], he’ll admit that with Fakatava putting pressure on, whereas Weber has just started consistently, been very good.”
Justin Marshall’s Super Rugby Aotearoa Form XV
1. Aidan Ross (Chiefs)
2. Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
3. Tyrel Lomax (Hurricanes)
4. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (Blues)
5. Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)
6. Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
7. Dalton Papalii (Blues)
8. Luke Jacobson (Chiefs)
9. Brad Weber (Chiefs)
10. Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
11. Leicester Fainga’anuku (Crusaders)
12. David Havili (Crusaders)
13. Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs)
14. Sevu Reece (Crusaders)
15. Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Head coach: Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now