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Where Damian McKenzie is a better fit than Richie Mo'unga

By Ben Smith
(Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images and Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images)

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Once upon a time, Damian McKenzie was New Zealand Rugby’s most elusive player.

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Since debuting for the Chiefs as a 20-year-old in 2015, McKenzie tore apart the competition and was constantly among the competition’s top five players for line breaks, defenders beaten and broken tackles.

He was an excitement machine who made big plays in a Dave Rennie-led Chiefs side that liked to run the ball from anywhere as skilled players like Aaron Cruden, James Lowe, Seta Tamanivalu and Anton Lienert-Brown gelled together in a high-scoring attack.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 31
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 31

There were calls for McKenzie to break into the All Blacks in those early years at the Chiefs, but it wasn’t until 2017 when he started regularly at fullback for New Zealand following injuries to Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett.

By 2018, the consensus was that McKenzie was the future All Blacks first-five, despite having mainly played at fullback throughout his brief professional career.

His schoolboy and age-grade days as a No 10 resulted in many earmarking him for a permanent positional shift at some point, although most recognised that, at the time, his talent was best utilised at the back.

That was reflected by New Zealand’s investment in building a 10-15 partnership between Beauden Barrett and McKenzie throughout 2017 and 2018.

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When Barrett was injured with concussion against France four years ago, McKenzie starred when he was handed his first test start at first-five against Les Bleus in Dunedin.

All of this took place without Richie Mo’unga really being in the picture, but pressure grew for his inclusion as the Crusaders racked up Super Rugby titles.

That was until their hand was forced following McKenzie’s ACL injury early in 2019. As a natural No 10, Mo’unga would play first-five and Barrett was moved to fullback.

It was worth a try, but it never panned out. Instead, the positional shakeup cost Barrett a World Cup campaign in his prime, with his ability illustrated by two two man-of-the-match performances against South Africa and Ireland.

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In hindsight, the Barrett-McKenzie partnership had better chemistry, working for both players despite the two being similar players in many aspects.

Both are criticised for a lack of game management skills, exploring too much with out-of-the-box decisions and unconventional running.

They push the high-risk pass often, putting their own side under pressure, and are naturally creative and dynamic runners of the ball.

However, at the end of the day, they produce points and try scoring opportunities.

Against England in 2018, it was McKenzie who scored the lone try from a Barrett inside ball, and he had three clean breaks whilst beating 11 defenders.

He was shaky under the high ball, but produced enough on attack to outweigh the negatives and finish with a huge net positive impact that proved decisive in overcoming a 15-0 deficit.

In the 2019 semi-final without McKenzie and with the Mo’unga-Barrett partnership against the same English side, the All Blacks would have been ‘nilled’ if not for an overthrow error scooped up by Ardie Savea.

They had essentially nothing in attack and could not get off defence.

Perhaps the most overlooked and undervalued discussion point in the Barrett-Mo’unga-McKenzie debate is their defensive ability, which is absolutely critical at test level.

Barrett does not even need to be brought up on this front as he has saved so many tries for the All Blacks. His tackles are a highlight reel in their own right.

As for the other two, McKenzie shines over Mo’unga in this area, and the difference is palpable at test level.

McKenzie has never been the biggest frame, but he is a much more consistent defender than Mo’unga. Perhaps that’s the result of putting your body on the line against bigger players in the open field while playing at fullback.

The All Blacks still have to hide Mo’unga on the field at times, as do the Crusaders. This is not to say he can’t tackle, his application is just less effective than McKenzie.

His defence in the line is often a target for opposition teams, which is the biggest detraction from his potential as an elite test player.

When the All Blacks lost to France last November, Les Bleus were able to manufacture one-on-ones against Mo’unga by running screens to distract his inside cover, and first-five Romain Ntamack beat him on the inside for a try.

McKenzie has never really had his defensive ability questioned as, time-and-time again, he has come up trumps against a much bigger man.

Outside of his defensive ineptitude at times, Mo’unga has struggled to show his playmaking class against elite test sides like the Springboks, England, France and Ireland.

His three biggest All Blacks performances have all come against the Wallabies – twice at Eden Park in 2019 and 2020, and then again in Sydney two years ago.

Mo’unga’s attacking prowess has failed to flourish against more threatening and powerful opposition, and the same can be said when Los Pumas famously bullied the All Blacks into submission two years ago.

For all the talk of the safety of his game management skills, he couldn’t stamp his authority and manage those matches.

It is never one player’s fault and Mo’unga can’t be blamed entirely, but the freewheeling style of Barrett and McKenzie can often produce plays that bail the side out when the side isn’t going so well.

Aside from those tests against the Wallabies, Mo’unga has not done that for the All Blacks against the world’s best.

In spite of all that, McKenzie’s All Blacks career has languished while Mo’unga’s continues, to the point where the Chiefs playmaker simply packed his bags and left for Japan at the end of last year.

Not on a contracted sabbatical signed off by New Zealand Rugby [NZR], but on a ‘see ya, talk later’ deal orchestrated on his own accord.

As it stands, McKenzie and Mo’unga are both 27-years-old with 40 and 32 tests each, respectively. The former has had the better test career so far, despite not having not featured as prominently since his injury return as he did between 2017 and 2018.

Since returning, McKenzie has been mucked around as a utility, filling in off the bench eight times and starting eight times.

At the backend of last year’s Rugby Championship, he was a bench substitute against South Africa twice, played in illogical positions as a centre and wing, and only got one start against Italy in Europe.

McKenzie is seemingly out of the picture completely for the Ireland series without a NZR deal in place. Mo’unga, meanwhile, is looking at a career-defining series to prove his test mettle, but it looks like Barrett is the number one first-five option again.

If Barrett is back as the number one first five, when looking at who should fill a potential bench spot, McKenzie is the obvious option over Mo’unga due to his versatility, stronger defence and unpredictable attacking traits.

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