Pre-season plug or left-field fix? Why Damian McKenzie's move to 10 could be a masterstroke
It’s never worth getting too hung up on what happens during the Super Rugby pre-season.
If your team manages to escape with a clean bill of health having shaken off the rustiness of an extended break, little else really matters.
Coaches bring in a swathe of extended squad members to add a few extra bodies to the cause and may ask their players to test out some new tactics or combinations, but the almost festival nature of it means you can’t read into anything too much.
With three other No 10s on the books in the form of Kaleb Trask, Bryn Gatland and Rivez Reihana, McKenzie looms as an obvious selection at fullback – especially given that’s where he’s found his best form in recent seasons.
Two year’s ago, in Colin Cooper’s final year in charge of the Chiefs, McKenzie was re-instated in the No 10 jersey following Aaron Cruden’s departure to France.
That’s the jersey McKenzie wore in his debut match for the Chiefs, back in 2017, but barring a short stint in that inaugural campaign while Cruden was sidelined through injury, McKenzie has been utilised almost exclusively at fullback – where he’s got the most room to move and the greatest opportunity to open up wonky defensive lines on the counter-attack.
That was until the early stages of 2019, but after just three games playing at first five (during which the Chiefs suffered a winless four-game streak to kick the season off), the pocket rocket was shifted to the back of the field and the debate surrounding his best position was seemingly put to bed.
McMillan had both Gatland and Reihana to call on in Saturday’s pre-season match, with Trask nursing an injury, but Reihana was instead used at fullback in the opening game while Gatland pulled the strings from 10. In the second match, a 14-7 loss to the Blues, McKenzie tasked with running the cutter.
While the Chiefs didn’t exactly fire on attack, McKenzie looked dangerous at first receiver – though still had the tendency to run sideways at times when a simple pass probably would have achieved the same result.
Who will be the next Etene Nanai-Seturo? https://t.co/ii93q7ytCG
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 21, 2018
Despite the presence of three other first fives on the books, there’s no obvious starter heading into the Chiefs’ opening game of the year, against the Highlanders in Hamilton in two weeks’ time.
Gatland is the most experienced option but still has just 20 Super Rugby caps to his name – with many of those earned off the bench. Trask was the heir-apparent last year with Warren Gatland in charge and was handed the No 10 jersey in the latter stages of the season, seemingly to prepare for the current campaign. During the Mitre 10 Cup, however, McMillan played Trask at fullback, somewhat limiting the 22-year-old’s development at first receiver.
Potential debutant Reihana, the youngest of the lot at just 20, is a prodigious talent and could be a long term solution for the Chiefs, but is incredibly green behind the ears.
While Gatland probably has the inside running, it’s understandable that McMillan might be considering shifting McKenzie closer to the action – and that opens up an exciting opportunity for the Chiefs in the form of Etene Nanai-Seturo.
Damian McKenzie saw himself slowly slide down the pecking order last year as he recovered from injury. Now, Beauden Barrett's injury presents a perfect opportunity for the pocket rocket to reassert his position. #AllBlacks #BledisloeCup #NZLvAUShttps://t.co/vvu0KeoVnb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 11, 2020
Since his debut for the Chiefs in 2019, however, Nanai-Seturo has had limited opportunities to showcase his talents. The natural fullback’s path to wearing 15 is blocked by McKenzie and the 21-year-old has never looked quite at home on the wing.
Slotting McKenzie in at No 10, however, could allow the Chiefs to get their most exciting backline on the park – even if it means taking McKenzie out of his preferred position.
In Saturday’s match against the Blues, Chase Tiatia wore 15 while Nanai-Seturo was again parked on the wing, which perhaps indicates that McMillan isn’t considering shifting Nanai-Seturo at fullback at this stage – but it’s still an exciting possibility for Chiefs fans and one that could help reinvigorate the franchise’s stuttering attack from last year.
In the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, the Chiefs managed just 14 tries over their eight matches, with four coming in the narrow loss to the Highlanders.
With a loaded backline of hot-steppers and risk-takers, that could change this year.
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