'When they overplay, it's as a consequence of other players in the side encouraging them to do so': Coach's take on Damian McKenzie's growth at No 10
One of the biggest positives to come out of the Chiefs’ victory over the Brumbies on Saturday – for both the team itself and New Zealand as a whole – was Damian McKenzie’s performance in the No 10 jersey.
Before the season kicked off, new Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan suggested that the All Blacks utility back was being seriously considered as a candidate to step in at first five despite McKenzie’s own admissions from 2019 that he’d prefer to play at fullback.
“I’ve come to the point where I enjoy 15 a lot more,” he said following his season-ending ACL injury. “10’s good fun but you’re limited especially around attacking with a bit more freedom and space [compared] to 15. That’s something I just like doing – running around like a headless chook trying to find some space.
“I’m pretty keen, for next year, now to nail a spot at 15 and get some good game time there then, if I have to, play 10. I’ve come to the conclusion where it’s more 15-10 than 10-15.”
Whether his preference has changed or not, the 26-year-old has been regularly employed in the No 10 jersey this year, starting at first five-eighths three times and inevitably moving to the first receiver role late in the games where he starts at fullback.
With each match at first five, McKenzie has looked more and more comfortable in the position – and he’s often been planted at wing when the opposition are setting up for a clearing kick so that he can still utilise his exceptional counter-attacking skills.
McMillan was especially pleased with McKenzie’s performance against the Brumbies in Hamilton and his decision-making at first receiver.
While the pocket rocket has sometimes overplayed his hand when wearing the No 10 jersey – including, perhaps, in last weekend’s clash with the Western Force in Perth, he was exceptionally composed on Saturday night.
“I thought he was a lot better,” said McMillan of his key playmaker, “but he’s helped by getting good ball up front and also us just respecting the ball and building phases and building pressure through holding onto the ball and just being direct and keeping things simple.
“There’s a couple of guys, Damo and Chase, they want to play. Their natural instinct is to play and often when they overplay, it’s as a consequence of other players in the side encouraging them to do so and when we push them towards being more clinical and the other guys a bit further out help them out, we usually get a good outcome.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 23, 2021
He, Mo’unga and the elder Barrett brother are all options at 10 while all bar Mo’unga are plausible candidates to wear No 15.
The world is already well aware of what McKenzie can do from the fullback position but if McKenzie can continue his good form at first five for the Chiefs, he’ll be hard to deny a spot in the All Blacks match-day 23.
Given the relative consistency with which he’s switched jerseys this year, however, there are no guarantees McKenzie will be asked to play 10 against the Reds next weekend, especially given Kaleb Trask’s classy performance off the bench on Saturday.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now