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Damian McKenzie should be the All Black first five on form

By Ben Smith
Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs and Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders talk following the round 10 Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on April 29, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Richie Mo’unga will go to the Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks but if the coaches are selecting on form, Damian McKenzie would be starting.


The playmaker has hit form at the right time as the Chiefs continue a nine-game unbeaten streak which includes two wins over Mo’unga’s Crusaders.

Mo’unga’s magic has dissipated somewhat recently. Form drops are inevitable, no matter how superhuman some players seem.

He bounced back from the opening round shock loss to the Chiefs with a strong showing in the demolition of the Highlanders.

That really has been the only signature Mo’unga performance so far this season, outside of some big plays against the Blues.

In a World Cup year with rest protocols and limited training schedules, All Black starters historically take time to warm-up.

But Super Rugby’s greatest player of all-time hasn’t had the farewell tour that he would have envisioned after the ink dried on the new Toshiba contract.


For the last three seasons, the Crusaders’ first five was either first or second in the competition in try assists, line breaks, and defenders beaten.

This season he doesn’t feature in the top 10 in the first two of those categories, and ranks fifth in defenders beaten.

The Crusaders have been heavily impacted by injuries, particularly the midfield, which can disrupt Mo’unga’s chemistry with the players around him.

On the other hand McKenzie is enjoying his best Super Rugby season since before the ACL knee injury in 2019 that robbed him of his first World Cup appearance.


The Chiefs playmaker is top five in try assists with five and has bagged three himself.


It has taken some time to see the pocket rocket’s running game ignite again, but the stint in Japan has freshened him up.

He was once the most dangerous player in the competition during his time as a fullback with Rennie’s attack-from-anywhere license.

He is showing those flashes consistently again, most notably against the Crusaders where he produced two big plays in the lead-up to two key Chiefs tries.

An offload to Stevenson created the first while he broke straight through late in the game to set-up his fullback.

There is the burst in his acceleration again and he looks threatening when he takes on the line.

Usually Super Rugby form in a World Cup wouldn’t be a concern to selectors, but there is the elephant in the room with Mo’unga.

If any consideration is given to the long-term plan, then that would tip the balance completely in McKenzie’s favour.

One guy has decided to end his All Black career after this season by moving to Japan, the other has re-committed until 2025 and will likely be there at the next World Cup.

We’ve seen this before with players who have spurned NZR early in favour of overseas riches.

Charles Piutau’s last Test as an All Black was in the 2015 Rugby Championship against South Africa. He was eligible for World Cup selection but missed out.

His big money move to Wasps was announced well in advance with his decision already made.

If McKenzie is the form No 10 and Mo’unga continues to be below his best, why wouldn’t NZR ask that McKenzie play instead?

The experience in 2023 could be invaluable for him in 2027, and immediately over the next two years where he looks to be the frontrunner to take the 10 jersey.

The loss of McKenzie back in 2019 is regarded as a key stroke of misfortune in the All Blacks failed bid for three straight Rugby World Cup wins.

Hansen had invested a lot of time in his 10-15 combination with Barrett over the better part of two years leading into that campaign.

During the 19-18 win over England in late 2018, McKenzie was the only All Black able to break open the English.

He had some hiccups under the high ball in the wet but produced three line breaks and a try running inside Barrett.

Without his game-breaking ability in Yokohama they fell to a 19-7 defeat a year later to the same side.

McKenzie’s injury is what brought Mo’unga into the All Blacks’ frame in the first place, forcing Barrett into a move to fullback.

Mo’unga can’t afford to lose form now that he’s going overseas. Without a long-term commitment to New Zealand, his ticket to France is that he is best No 10 available, but right now McKenzie is looking better.

It might not play out very well for the Crusaders great if he can’t get back to his best.


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