Following the departure of All Blacks veteran Ben Smith to France after last year’s World Cup, the fullback role in the New Zealand set-up has become vacant.

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Now plying his trade for Pau in the Top 14, the 33-year-old was barely utilised in his swansong international tournament in Japan, despite forging a reputation as one of the greatest fullbacks in modern-day rugby over a decade-long test career.

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Instead, Smith was only used twice in the starting lineup by ex-All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen throughout the six-match campaign – once at fullback and once at right wing.

In his place, Beauden Barrett was picked as the man for the job in the No. 15 jersey as the All Blacks opted for a dual playmaking scheme, with Richie Mo’unga the preferential first-five.

That experiment didn’t reap the rewards the All Blacks were looking for, though, as they were bundled out at the semi-final stage by England, and a re-think is now on the cards as to who should win selection at fullback in 2020.

With Smith now re-located to Europe, the All Blacks can’t call upon the 84-test star they overlooked last year.

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Barrett could well re-gain the No. 15 jersey, but based on the outcome of his positional switch in Japan combined with his world-beating exploits at No. 10 in the seasons before that, a return to first-five could be a much-needed one for the new Blues pivot.

However, the concept of having two playmakers on the field at any given time is still deemed a necessity in New Zealand’s professional ranks, as evidenced throughout Super Rugby.

With varying results, all five Kiwi franchises have used at least two – sometimes even three – playmakers in their backlines this season, so it seems inevitable that the All Blacks will continue to enforce the trend at international level.

But, should Barrett return to his preferred position of first-five, the question of who will succeed both him and Smith as New Zealand’s premier fullback remains unanswered.

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That was the case until Friday night, so it seems.

The round seven-opening derby between the Chiefs and Hurricanes in Hamilton saw two of the country’s leading fullbacks go head-to-head in what could almost be seen as a trial of sorts leading into the international test window.

In Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs had an electric 23-test star, who is capable of covering first-five, line up against Hurricanes maestro Jordie Barrett, a genuine utility back option who has thrived since the departure of his older brother Beauden.

Unless the previously in-form Crusaders playmaker David Havili can pick up from where he left off when he recovers from his emergency bowel surgery, McKenzie and Barrett stand as the leading frontrunners for the All Blacks’ No. 15 jersey.

That added an extra dimension to an already tantalising New Zealand derby, but while both impressed through their respective styles of play, it is Barrett who has seemingly won over the public following his side’s tense 27-24 victory.

The 23-year-old slotted a long-range penalty in injury time to cap off an immaculate display, where ran for a season-high 118 metres, beat six defenders, made one clean break, kicked 12 points and assisted Ben Lam’s try.

Subsequently, plenty of punters took to Twitter to voice their approval of the 17-test youngster, whose goal-kicking exploits has landed the Hurricanes inside the top eight sides on the Super Rugby standings.

Despite his side’s defeat, McKenzie wasn’t to be outdone on the stat sheet, as he racked up a season-high 99 running metres, two clean breaks, eight defenders beaten – another season-high figure – and kicked nine points.

Such a commanding performance leaves McKenzie deep in the hunt for the All Blacks’ fullback role, but whether the selectors prefer his enthralling running game or Barrett’s size and goal-kicking won’t be determined until four months’ time.

If selection was left to the armchair critics, though, particularly after last night’s clash, Barrett appears the favourite to take the reigns from both his brother and Smith.

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