The question over where the Chiefs should play their dynamic playmaker Damian McKenzie continues to go unanswered as the franchise looks to rectify their first time round performance in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Their star fullback underwent a transition to first five in 2018 under Colin Cooper, where the season didn’t go as planned for the Chiefs.
All Black duties saw McKenzie move back to fullback on the 2018 end of year tour, and the Chiefs mirrored that move the following season before injury struck. On return in 2020, McKenzie again resumed duties as a fullback but the luckless Chiefs went 0-8 in their Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Former Blues hooker James Parsons believed McKenzie must stuck to fullback while new signing Bryn Gatland can provide what the Chiefs are missing.
“I think Damian really looks good at fullback, he is great at fullback, he injects himself into the game, he likes to move around,” he said on this week’s Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“When he was at first five on the weekend, he was roaming around and didn’t really give that clear platform.
“Where the Chiefs are at, I think they were really good against the Crusaders, they had heaps of opportunities in the 22 and their lineout just faulted. They couldn’t get reward for that amount of territory & possession pressure.
“So I think Bryn Gatland is a perfect fit for them. He will put the ball in front of his forwards, he will have good structure, good direction, great voice.
“And then having someone like Damian McKenzie injecting himself from the back, picking and choosing when he comes to first receiver, is a good fit in my opinion.”
Crusaders haflback Bryn Hall said the Chiefs were tough to play against in their recent warm-up fixture, and the threat of McKenzie at the back is always constant.
“It’s probably the unseen stuff that people don’t see that makes a good 10, it’s giving the forwards or the players around you confidence around the game plan and what you are trying to do.
“The points you are bringing up around a well-oiled machine, it looks normal, it looks like what it should look like. That’s what Bryn does really, really well. Great game management around seeing stuff, his kicking game, the space he sees in behind to put teams under pressure.
“He’s got a beautiful skillset when it comes to putting players in space as well. I think with Damo at 15 as well, he gets to roam and he’s so dangerous.
“I know when we play him at 15, you are on high alert every single time he has the ball because he has the ability to play off a pivot, he can play in-and-around, he can jink and jive across field and be more instinctive.
However, Hall highlighted the growing problem for the All Blacks with Beauden Barrett playing in Japan, that the number of proven first fives in the country is just down to just one.
“I do want to say one thing around Damian, if you think around the next level and with Beaudy Barrett not being here and Richie being the only incumbent 10 in New Zealand, where would be another place that Damo would be pretty safe to actually play?”
“If you look at the outside backs, Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan is there now, there is a really good opportunity for a number 10 in New Zealand Rugby.”
“With Beaudy going, Richie is probably the only proven 10 in the country.”
“Maybe Damian is thinking if I play 10, and play well, it opens up the possibility of playing 10 and 15. I’ve got to be selected in the All Blacks as a 10 and 15, not just a 15.”
Parsons suggested that McKenzie should perhaps play that role with the Chiefs, showing his versatility by starting at fullback and moving to first five later in the game to show Ian Foster his ability to cover both roles seamlessly.
“Why not play the role that he would play then? And slip into 10 late for the Chiefs? Start Bryn, and if Bryn comes off at 60 and Damian comes down from fullback to first five and play that role.
“Say ‘ok, this is the role I could play for you in the All Blacks’, I just think Bryn is just a great settled 10 and will just provide a great platform for the Chiefs to just work off and build on.
“He’ll earn the right for the Chiefs to play the Damian McKenzie-style late in the game when there is tiring bodies, and that’s what he’s done so well for Harbour over the years.
“If he gets given a crack, I’m telling you, he will be exceptional for the Chiefs at 10.”
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