OPINION: There’s a sense of inevitability in a World Cup year that at least one or two big name All Blacks will suffer a season ending injury.
Damian McKenzie, although small in stature, had the potential to be one of the top entertainers in Japan – he is potentially one of the most exciting and electric players to step on the field for the All Blacks since the likes of Christian Cullen – but we will now see him play no part in the All Blacks’ quest for the World Cup three-peat after rupturing an ACL in the Chiefs’ most recent Super Rugby match against the Blues.
From a selector’s point of view, McKenzie has been an excellent utility player who will be almost impossible to replace.
It’s been an up and down sort of career for McKenzie at an international level so far. He played a bit-part in the All Blacks’ 2016 season, notching up his first two test appearances, then was omitted from the initial squad to take on the British and Irish Lions in 2017 in favour of Jordie Barrett. Although he was eventually called into the team, McKenzie didn’t get the chance to take the field.
Come the 2017 Rugby Championship, McKenzie once again found himself in favour with the All Blacks selectors, starting all six matches at fullback in the absence of Ben Smith, who was on a sabbatical from rugby.
His growing experience and great form saw McKenzie play in all but one of New Zealand’s remaining test matches for 2017 but the expectation remained that when Smith returned to the fold, McKenzie would be relegated back to the bench or wider squad.
2018 kicked off with that exact situation occurring. In the June tests with France, McKenzie was named on the bench for the first two matches, with Smith resuming his post at fullback. An injury to Beauden Barrett, however, saw McKenzie spending the better part of the final two tests against France in the 10 jersey – a position that the All Blacks coaches suggested was McKenzie’s long-term future.
It was at fullback, however, where McKenzie seemed to instil himself as the incumbent by the end of the year. Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors slowly became more partial towards employing two playmakers on the field at all times in order to take some pressure off Barrett at first five, and McKenzie was the obvious option to fill this second playmaker role – being both the second choice 10 and second choice 15 in the squad.
What eventuated was Smith moving to the right wing and McKenzie slipping into Smith’s old spot at fullback. This formation was used in all of the All Blacks’ big test matches after the Rugby Championship – against Australia, England and Ireland. It was clear that Hansen saw this as the number one combination moving forward, as Barrett and McKenzie were retained for the final match of the year against Italy in order to improve the combination.
McKenzie’s career with the international team has been brief so far, but based on the matches played in the latter part of last year it’s fair to say that, barring a change of heart from Hansen, McKenzie would likely have played a big role in the 2019 Rugby World Cup – probably at fullback for the All Blacks’ major matches.
McKenzie’s dynamic play has often led to mini heart attacks for both his and opposition coaches alike, but it’s his ability to play at both first five and fullback that has been most valuable for the All Blacks.
It’s been widely expected that the All Blacks’ World Cup squad would be comprised of 14 backs: three halfbacks, three first fives, four midfielders and four outside backs.
This expectation was somewhat guided by the fact that McKenzie could cover multiple positions – starting as a fullback but being capable of moving into the 10 jersey if necessary. While he was unlikely to get any game time at flyhalf during the big games, it seemed likely that he might cover 10 during a pool match with the likes of Canada or Namibia.
McKenzie’s absence, however, may require a rethink from the All Blacks coaches. Do they bring into the squad the next best first five in the country, and hope their outside backs have sufficient coverage from the midfielders? Or would it be more prudent to bring in another fullback option, and start someone like Jordie Barrett at 10 in a pool game? The other option, of course, is to bring in a player who can cover both positions, much like McKenzie.
The truth of the matter is that whilst there is an abundance of outside back talent in New Zealand – with a number of form players pushing for a spot in the squad but unlikely to make the team, there are very few first fives on display who are likely to be ready for test football come the World Cup. Further complicating the matter is that Richie Mo’unga, arguably New Zealand’s best pure first five, also hasn’t had much game time for the All Blacks and will now need more opportunities this year.
Brett Cameron is the next cab off the ranks, simply by virtue of being taken on last year’s northern tour. Cameron, however, is incredibly inexperienced at even Super Rugby level. In his first start for the Crusaders against the Waratahs, earlier this season, he was exceptionally underwhelming and made a number of errors. This is completely forgivable in your first Super Rugby start – not everyone can be immediate world beaters – but that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to control a World Cup match.
Cameron’s teammate, Mitch Hunt, is one of the more experienced Super Rugby first fives doing the rounds, having earned almost 40 caps for the Crusaders. Hunt’s greatest advantage is that he has spent time in both the 15 and 10 jerseys so, in that facet, is exactly what the All Blacks are looking for. Given that Cameron was preferred on the end of year tour, however, Hunt may be lacking in other areas that the All Blacks coaches demand.
In all likelihood, Cameron would not have been selected for the tour, however, if young Blues first five Stephen Perofeta had not been injured. Perofeta has been slowly eased into the Blues team in the last year, spending more time at fullback than in his preferred position of 10. This year, he is yet to be sighted in Super Rugby due to another injury sustained in the pre-season, but should be due back any week now. Perofeta is not quite as green as Cameron and has already performed well against top-tier opposition, leading the Blues from 10 in their historic victory over the British and Irish Lions last year. If Perofeta is able to rack up a few starts for the Blues before the Rugby Championship in July, then he could well be the man to replace McKenzie.
Otere Black, also at the Blues, is probably the next best pure number 10 in the country and has been growing in every match for the Aucklanders. Black, with 30 caps to his name, missed all of the Blues’ 2018 campaign through injury, but has returned with a purpose in 2019. Though he sometimes has the habit of sitting too deep in the pocket, he has a level head and would not try overplay his hand, were he selected in the All Blacks squad. Black has also represented the Maori All Blacks as recently as last year but the Maori’s weaker schedule in recent times means he hasn’t played against any tier 1 nations.
Then there are the more left-field options – the guys that would be selected simply as a stopgap measure for the 2019 year then left to go about their business once the Rugby World Cup comes to a close.
In 2011, Stephen Donald was famously recalled into the All Blacks team on the eve of the semi-final match with Australia. His role in winning the championship has been well documented. Donald answered a last minute call-up to the Chiefs earlier this year, coming off the bench in their first match of the season against the Highlanders. Donald hasn’t been spotted on the field since but would still have plenty of experience to offer an All Blacks midweek team, if not match fitness or form.
Highlanders talisman Marty Banks is another player who has covered both 10 and 15 at Super Rugby level. Banks has played rugby all over the world and kicked an important drop goal in the Highlander’s victory in the 2015 Super Rugby final. Whilst fans would be euphoric to see a guy like Banks called into the test team, he is considerably more erratic than some of the other players up for selection and has yet to show in his many years of professional rugby that he has the consistency and level-headedness for test football.
Finally, it would take a major change to the rules, but one Kiwi first five who has been performing exceptionally well in recent times is Sunwolves first five Hayden Parker. His goalkicking performance in the last two years is second to none, knocking over 77 out of 80 attempts. Whilst this accuracy is definitely his biggest strength, he’s by no means a one-trick pony – but would New Zealand be willing to fundamentally change their selection policy for Parker?
It’s clear that there’s a range of options to replace Damian McKenzie now that there’s no chance of him suiting up for the All Blacks in 2019 – but there’s certainly no stand out candidate for the role. McKenzie’s magic and X-factor will never be able to be replaced, but a young New Zealand talent is going to have to step up and fill in the diminutive utility’s huge boots.
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