McKenzie, Mo'unga or Taylor?: Former All Blacks split over selection of Super Rugby Aotearoa MVP
Speaking on The Breakdown earlier this week, Jeff Wilson, Sir John Kirwan, Justin Marshall and Mils Muliaina all put forward their picks for which player they thought was the most valuable for their respective teams throughout this season.
In the eyes of Wilson, McKenzie’s match-winning exploits for the Chiefs was too much to look past in his summation of the best player in the competition.
The 26-year-old fullback has been crucial in the Hamilton franchise’s turnaround from winless cellar-dwellers to Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists by landing the match-winning points in the last four matches he has played in.
Against the Blues in Hamilton, he 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.
It’s for that reason that Wilson picked the 27-test international as his 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa MVP.
“I believe when I look at an MVP, it’s the impact they’ve had for their team, about how they’ve impacted their season,” the former 60-test All Black said.
“Damian McKenzie, for me, when you’re kicking match-winning goals, having the impact from fullback or first-five, that’s how I’ve rated him.”
Kirwan opted to back Crusaders playmaker Mo’unga, who was widely regarded as the best player in last year’s inaugural edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa and went on to scoop 2020 Super Rugby Player of the Year at the New Zealand Rugby Awards.
The 26-year-old has been in a similar vein of form this season as he has been the focal point of the Crusaders’ run to what could be a fifth straight title for the Christchurch-based side, should they defeat the Chiefs in this weekend’s final.
Kirwan described Mo’unga as an “unbelievable” player due to his attacking prowess and “great decision-making”.
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“I’m really hoping he’s going to take this X-factor form to the All Blacks where the team has been under pressure and he [is able to break the defensive line],” Kirwan said of the 22-test international.
“Critical moments, like Mils was talking about where they’ve got to know their roles, he [is able to break the defensive line] and lights the squad up with great decision-making. For me, that’s a special quality.”
While Marshall agreed with Kirwan’s views on Mo’unga, the former 81-test All Blacks halfback decided to name Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor as his most valuable player for the 2021 campaign.
The 30-year-old front rower has been in inspired form for the reigning champions this year, catching the eye with his huge work rate, defensive ability at the breakdown and his knack for scoring tries.
Taylor currently leads Super Rugby Aotearoa try-scoring leaderboard with seven tries to his name, two more than the next cab-off-the-rank in Highlanders wing Jona Nareki.
He also joins Hurricanes flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi at the top of the league’s tackle count (95), and it’s that kind of influence on the competition that Marshall has been impressed by.
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“I thought the way that Codie Taylor came out of the sheds at the start of the season, he just looked hungry, he was fit, and he looks like he’s evolved his game,” Marshall said.
“Certainly playing confidently, and I think a lot of what the Crusaders were doing early in this competition was off the back of the work rate, the effort, the X-factor that Codie Taylor had.”
Muliaina also threw his support behind Taylor as the former All Blacks fullback identified that the 56-test international had provided a point of difference compared to other hookers across New Zealand this year.
“I think he’s brought something different,” Muliaina said of Taylor. “When you speak about core roles, he nails all of that, but he’s brought something different in terms of his running game, he looks really excited when he’s broken through.
“A lot of players can’t actually do that in terms of footwork but also speed, so he’s gone away and thought about how he can be better as an All Black, and that’s what I’ve loved about him.”
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