The Barrett-McKenzie dual playmaker system can take the All Blacks' attack to new levels
It was a forced arrangement during the back end of 2017 after an injury to Jordie Barrett during the Lions tour and Ben Smith’s sabbatical, but in 2018 the All Blacks have opted to trial run the dual playmaker system with the other options available during the final four matches of the year.
Despite teething problems, the All Blacks should not be deterred from pushing ahead with this experiment. A partnership between Super Rugby’s most dynamic player and a back-to-back World Rugby Player of the Year has the potential to bring in a new age of All Blacks attacking rugby.
The similarities run deep between these unique talents. Both bring unpredictable, highly instinctual, unorthodox styles of play to the table. Both have been ‘manufactured’ into professional first fives through the fullback pathway. Both divide opinion over their most suited position. And both, like it or not, are fully entrenched in the All Blacks first five-eighth plans for the better part of the next 10 years.
It seems the coaches have been seduced by the idea that two 10’s are better than one for the first time in nearly 15 years. The All Blacks have run this dual playmaker model before, briefly in 2003-04 with Carlos Spencer and Dan Carter at 10 and 12 respectively. They have reasoned it is time to try it again such is the potential reward to be reaped.
The case against the arrangement is obvious and simple – Ben Smith is the best fullback and as such should play there.
However, at 33-years-old Smith is defying history already, playing at an extremely high level while reaching new frontiers – he is the oldest player to play fullback for the All Blacks in the professional era.
There is always the risk that ‘father time’ catches up with Smith before next year’s event, at which time he will be 34. When age does finally catch up, the decline is not usually a gradual process – it’s a cliff drop.
A failure to prepare for this distinct possibility is negligence. If the World Cup has taught anything in the past, it is depth is non-negotiable. The All Blacks need to put together a ‘Plan B’ and build experience with such plans.
With McKenzie in the starting side at fullback, there are certain trade-offs you make – you lose the super-sub impact he has been providing at the back end of games.
The bench cameo against France in June in the first test saw ‘video-game level’ production – a 19-minute period of mayhem that saw the points on the scoreboard double.
If even half of that impact can be bottled and spread over the first 60-minutes, it is worth a try.
McKenzie’s instincts off turnover ball are truly ridiculous. Within a flash he is injecting himself and sniping for space, looking to turn transition into big plays. This counter-attacking talent in the backfield comes with the high-ball vulnerability we have seen, which is the heart of the McKenzie risk-reward conundrum at fullback.
This risk can be potentially managed in a way that doubles-down on McKenzie’s lethal ‘click’ plays and minimizes high ball contests.
In defence, both Barrett and McKenzie roam the backfield as two fullbacks. The two-fullback defensive system is also in place when others like Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith fill the fifteen jersey.
It is part of the ‘bend don’t break’ defensive philosophy. The All Blacks do often concede line breaks but they are able to close it down more often than not. The conversion ratio for opposition teams is extremely low.
In the two-back system, if they can find a way for McKenzie to be ‘shielded’ away on the far open side in the backfield it will achieve two things – limit his exposure to box kicks, which is contested nearly 100% of the time, and increase his counter opportunities.
The contested box kicks would become Barrett’s aerial responsibility behind rucks in the 15-metre channels. If the ball is able to be freed in the same phase by Barrett (or on the next phase) to the opposite side, McKenzie will get a transition opportunity in open space, where he is most dangerous.
If the opposition just kicks to the open side it will tend to be a longer kick, with a lower probability of an aerial contest but potentially more kick chase pressure, which can present McKenzie a fragmented line to ‘do his thing’.
A switching protocol in the backfield to keep McKenzie on the open side reduces the turnover risk and opens up the return game. Most exit kicks come shortly after a set-piece play, a kickoff, scrum or lineout, usually from the same side of the field the ball started on. Few sides play to the middle to exit kick.
It is plausible then to deliberately manage the position of the two fullbacks in the backfield so the All Blacks can have their cake and eat it too.
In attack, both float into first receiver roles, Barrett a bit more so than McKenzie but it is a fluid arrangement. They are wearing two different numbers but effectively have been playing the same role on both sides of the ball.
This is a deliberate ploy and contrasts with how both Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith fit in on attack. They relieve first receiver duties as well, but do not get anywhere near the volume of touches McKenzie is getting.
In theory, this double-barreled approach at first five-eighth will allow Barrett’s strength, his running game, to flourish more. With McKenzie available to take first receiver duties over at any time, Barrett can run without a second thought.
With McKenzie at fullback this year, Barrett is averaging 16.5 carries a game, up from 12.5 in six games without. A Barrett prepared to take on the line more is a good thing for the All Blacks attack, even if it’s just an effective safety valve when line speed is bringing too much outside pressure.
In his first season in Super Rugby as a first five-eighth, McKenzie proved he has more potential as a ball-player at 10 than Barrett has. He shouldered a much bigger load at the Chiefs than he did at fullback, his possessions per eighty minutes rose from 27.8 to 40.8. He kicked more (74% increase) and passed more (63% increase), but ran less (17% decrease).
The significant increase in distribution duties sharpened his play, and he developed into a dynamic passer prepared to fire shots. He has no issues playing flat at the line and is prepared to sacrifice his body in order to put a teammate in a gap. The Chiefs found the best of McKenzie using him in behind a pod and releasing him often by interlinking with forwards. The pod absorbed the initial line speed pressure and McKenzie injected from the second level.
With more responsibility, his production as a playmaker improved out of sight, completing a line break assist every 12 passes compared to one every 17.7 last year. He finished with 23 line break assists this season, compared to Barrett’s 14.
Against England early in the second half, the way he cut inside past Owen Farrell, poked through the submerging defence and handled an around-the-corner offload to Smith was supernatural, crafted out of nothing. Had Aaron Smith’s last pass to Ardie Savea been on the chest that would have been a definitive blow.
With McKenzie on the field, a scoring opportunity is just around the corner at any moment it seems. He sees things and does things in a unique way, often with risk, but it eventually bears fruit.
The area of the game that a Barrett-McKenzie partnership can transform the most is first phase set-piece attack, an area that has become stale under the ‘Javelin’ playbook.
For the last three years, most first phase plays are being run to play a midfield ruck, providing early ball to the 12 who can either carry or play 13 short. The option to play a looping 10 out the back is rarely taken.
With a ball-player at 15 on the edge, the opportunities to strike with a wide game are waiting there, particularly from the scrum platform.
A playbook using stack formations and a number of sweep lines to overload the defence using the speed of both Barrett and McKenzie in the wide channels would re-invigorate an under-utilised platform by the All Blacks. There were signs in Yokohama that a ‘stack attack’ is in the works, but halfback TJ Perenara attempted a wide cutout pass on the only midfield scrum with a stack formation in place.
Against a side like Ireland who don’t provide many opportunities, each scrum possession in attacking field position is like a sliver of gold. With the three scrums given in Dublin, the All Blacks botched a pass from 8 to 10 on one, the ball spewed out the back on another, and the last one was grubbered away – hardly an effective use of the platform. McKenzie and Barrett can provide first and second playmaking options in the same play, opening up the ability to run more complex schemes.
The All Blacks will play four more test matches before their opening World Cup pool match against the Springboks. If they want two 10’s on the field at the same time, then they need to go all in with the idea in next year’s Rugby Championship. It isn’t lighting the world on fire, but that seems more down to the fact they aren’t trying to do much with it yet.
If they can master it, it could bring in a new age of All Blacks attacking rugby.
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