Another weekend, another match-winning moment from Damian McKenzie – it’s like clockwork now. The Chiefs maestro has notched up four late-game plays in a row to guide his side into the Super Rugby Aotearoa finals, but does that make him a shoo-in for the All Blacks No 15 jersey?
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, former All Black James Parsons has said that Hurricanes playmaker Jordie Barrett is still the man to play fullback for the national side, given his sustained performances over the past two seasons.
“If you think of the platform that Jordie Barrett’s playing off, and what he’s still delivering – it’s freakish,” Parsons said.
“He creates a lot out of nothing. It’s almost 24 months he’s been performing at that level. I still think it’s his first crack at it.”
Barrett’s Hurricanes will finish the Aotearoa competition in fifth place regardless of whether they can tip over the Highlanders in Wellington this weekend but they’ve been almost single-handedly kept in contests thanks to Barrett’s booming boot and his ability to create chances out of nothing.
That’s not to say that McKenzie’s all-round game hasn’t also impressed Parsons, a Super Rugby centurion.
“Damian is winning games with his boot but more so … his decision-making of when to be that electric Damian McKenzie and take a gamble and when to rein it in and set the player or put them in the field position, he’s got that balance so right where maybe in the past he hasn’t,” said Parsons. “At the moment, his game is so on point.
“I think, potentially, because of where the Chiefs are at, he’s almost had to say ‘follow me’ [and] put the team on his back, as such. I know it’s not just him, there’s a lot of players who have done a lot of work – I’ve mentioned Angus [Ta’avao], [Luke] Jacobson, [Brad] Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown as well. But he’s really taking charge in terms of the game-driving and the direction of the group and getting that balance.
“But I still think there’s plenty of X-factor there. You go back to the match-winner against the Blues… His passing game and offloads. He still has that X-factor but it’s that decision-making in moments is getting that balance right.
“That 10/15 role on the bench is a hard one but he still has the ability to start, don’t get me wrong, but it might be the position he fits perfectly at the start of the All Blacks season.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 25, 2021
Parsons’ co-panellist and former teammate, Bryn Hall, agreed that McKenzie appears as an obvious choice for an impact role off the All Blacks bench.
“It’s tough because as a competitor you want to be out there but I think Jordie, through the last 24 months, probably deserves that role to still wear 15 and then Damo has that ability to come off the bench either at 10 or 15,” Hall said.
“Beaudie [Beauden Barrett] is going to be back, he’s going to be in and around the group and he’s going to get his opportunity but I think Damo’s probably warranted getting an opportunity. Jordie will probably end up starting, I think, with the way he’s played. They’ll all get their opportunities, it’s more so when you get to that level, you’ve just got to try and take your chance when you have it.
“[McKenzie] has obviously really matured and I think coming back to Jips’ point, especially around the game management side, probably in the past, the offload or the wrong timing of that has just gone out of his game this year. His game management at 10’s been world-class.”
Both Parsons and Hall also commended Will Jordan’s recent form, with the Crusaders fullback scoring two expertly taken tries in his team’s win over the Blues in the weekend.
“He’s really come into form now,” said Hall, Jordan’s teammate at the Crusaders.
“He’s got the ability to turn a game on its head with his X-factor and his ability to be in and around the ball. He’s something different that the All Blacks could use at that level as well.
“It’s a tough time to be a fullback, obviously, there’s so many around. It’s going to be a tough decision for the All Blacks selectors. It’s great for New Zealand.”
Jordan may instead find himself wearing the No 14 jersey for the All Blacks this season, the pair suggested.
As Hall alluded to, it’s going to be a tough decision for the national selectors ahead of the test season – but it’s a good spot for them to be in, especially with Beauden Barrett returning to the mix from Japan.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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