For someone who rarely gets injured, Damian McKenzie sure has caused a stir by injuring his knee.
Most of those in Chiefs territory got that sinking feeling when he went down against the Blues. Their playoffs, let alone title, hopes went west as he limped off. Anton Lienert-Brown is manfully attempting to carry the Chiefs backline on his shoulders, but it will be to no avail.
Yet, judging by the head-shaking and hand-wringing, you would think the chances of an All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup three-peat have just evaporated. Who will be the third-string No 10? How will we replace the mercurial counter-attacking talents of D Mac? Whatever will we do?
Several pundits went off-piste with the assertion that the Blues’ Otere Black was the next cab off the rank. Black is a decent bloke, a fine goalkicker and probably a good pro. He is not an All Blacks No 10. His passing is laboured and he is not someone who will take on the line or set a backline alight. Were it not for Harry Plummer’s goalkicking issues, Black would be wearing the No 22 jersey for the Blues.
The Crusaders’ Brett Cameron, who was gifted one of the cheapest All Blacks jerseys in history last November, is also not the answer. One of the best goalkickers in the country, Cameron played so poorly at pivot for the Crusaders against the Waratahs – albeit in a dreadful overall team display – that Scott Robertson has not been able to risk him again. Mitch Hunt, who will never be an All Black, has shown himself to be a better all-round footballer and is the natural understudy to Richie Mo’unga.
So who is the next-best All Blacks-eligible No 10? Quite simply, Josh Ioane of the Highlanders.
And not just because he controlled play with aplomb in the shutout of the Sunwolves last weekend. He has been showing growing maturity and class for the last 12 months. He was the inspiration behind Otago’s rousing Ranfurly Shield win over Waikato and was, with Fletcher Smith, the premier No 10 in the Mitre 10 Cup. They should have taken Ioane to Japan instead of Cameron.
In 2019, Ioane has started six of the Highlanders’ nine matches in the No 10 position. They dabbled with Marty Banks, who is accurate off the tee and a Tasman Mako and franchise legend. But an All Blacks No 10 he is not. He tackles like Ronan O’Gara, for one. So watch the Ioane-Aaron Smith halves combination closely in the coming weeks. It may be telling as the Highlanders make a late tilt for the playoffs.
For all that, the All Blacks selectors, among them Grant Fox and Ian Foster, who should know a decent first five when they see one, may decide that Ioane is not quite ready for the highest level. That would be a fair enough call. His time will come.
So if that were the case, they would opt for cover in the back three. Jordie Barrett is your man. He may have gone to the Rugby World Cup anyway, but he can play in multiple positions, including No 10. He could carve up Namibia from pivot.
We do not need to resort to bending the rules, or making desperate plays for Hayden Parker (!!!), Daniel Carter (!!) or Aaron Cruden (!). Parker is the best goalkicker on the planet, and has developed his all-round game, but he was surplus to requirements not that long ago. Has he really made supersonic progress in one season? Carter is the best No 10 of all time, but has a neck injury, which meant he could not even suit up in France. He is also 37, lest we forget.
Cruden is 30 and has had a topsy-turvy time for Montpellier with his form and body, not to mention his boss firing a few shots his way. His club could potentially yet reach the French Top 14 playoffs and, if they made the final, that would be played on the same weekend as the Chiefs’ final regular season match on June 14. Would the selectors take him on sight unseen or ask him to turn out for his College Old Boys club in Palmy to keep the match fitness up before making a remarkable test comeback in July? I rather think not.
They have options, even if they decide against promoting Ioane, who is clearly the next best eligible first five. Don’t panic. Save that for if Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga go down.
NZR re-sign Richie Mo’unga:
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