It’s been over a decade since a second-string New Zealand side took the field but the All Blacks XV gave the world a timely reminder of the depth NZ possesses in their match against Ireland A on Friday evening.
The Maori All Blacks have operated as a shadow development team for the All Blacks in recent times, with a number of current Test stars, including Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Aaron Smith, and Rieko Ioane, getting their first taste of senior representative action for the composite side.
The All Blacks XV naturally won’t operate with any of the restrictions of the Maori side, however, and there now exists a genuine pathway between playing Super Rugby and playing international football for every promising player in New Zealand.
The ‘next generation’ was on full show against Ireland in Dublin, with the likes of Brodie McAlister, Dominic Gardiner and Shaun Stevenson all impressing. McAlister, in particular, must be a genuine option for the All Blacks at next year’s Rugby World Cup, given their lack of obvious back-ups to the likes of senior operators Codie Taylor and Dane Coles.
The men on the fringes of the All Blacks also didn’t disappoint. Patrick Tuipulotu led from the front and mixed up his game nicely while TJ Perenara sent a timely reminder to Ian Foster what he brings to the fold – even if his passing game wasn’t necessarily up to scratch. The midfield partnership of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Braydon Ennor also got another run and while they wouldn’t have done anything to upset the apple cart, with the likes of David Havili, Quinn Tupaea, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieke Ioane and Jordie Barrett all ahead of them in the pecking order, they’ll be better for the minutes.
The man who perhaps most enhanced his reputation, however, was playmaker Damian McKenzie.
Before lavishing the 27-year-old with too many plaudits after an impressive performance at the RDS, it’s worth noting that his forwards laid the groundwork needed to set the backline alight – and McKenzie took full advantage of his pack’s dominance across the park.
But that shouldn’t take away from the finely balanced performance the former All Black delivered on a wet Friday night.
While McKenzie has clocked up ample minutes at fullback in the international arena, his opportunities in the No 10 jersey have been few and far between.
In June 2018, the young tyro clocked up almost 150 minutes in the role for the All Blacks against France when first-choice playmaker Beauden Barrett suffered a head knock in the early moments of the second match of the three-Test series.
McKenzie’s acceleration has always been one of his biggest strengths and it’s perhaps the primary reason he’s so highly regarded as a player.
McKenzie didn’t disappoint, setting up three tries, scoring two of his own and having a hand in a further two while playing at first receiver. He finished the two matches with over 150 run metres to his name (and a further 117 off the bench in the opening Test) and had clearly shown to coach Steve Hansen that he was capable of stepping into the playmaker role should injury strike down Barrett.
It wasn’t until 2021 that McKenzie was given another run at No 10, however.
The Chiefs talisman was handed the reins against Argentina during the Tri-Nations and while he wasn’t able to replicate his attacking feats from three years earlier (setting up just three linebreaks), his game control was on full display and he was happy to play a distributor role.
Having spent the Super Rugby Pacific season playing for Tokyo Sungoliath in Japan – and spending much of the campaign wearing No 10 – McKenzie’s full bag of tricks was on full display against Ireland A on Friday in that first-receiver role.
McKenzie’s acceleration has always been one of his biggest strengths and it’s perhaps the primary reason he’s so highly regarded as a player. Beauden Barrett might have better top-end pace while Nick Evans was no slouch, but McKenzie might be the fastest flyhalf option off the mark that NZ has called upon in many years and he used that to full advantage against the Wolfhounds.
The 25th-minute try scored by the All Blacks XV – one of the best you’ll see – was sparked by McKenzie picking up the ball inside his own 22 and surging through a gap before finding his supporting runners. He backed up his initial effort by soon acting as a link player in the movement, and throwing a perfect cut-out pass to Ruben Love to keep the scoring opportunity alive.
It’s the kind of try that would not have been scored with any other player standing at first-receiver.
The highlight of the score wasn’t the initial break, however, it was the pass delivered by the flyhalf at top speed to the wider channels – and that’s perhaps McKenzie’s greatest strength, and the most important skill he could bring to the No 10 role on a regular basis.
Time and time again throughout the match, McKenzie delivered pinpoint passes to men in space and it had Ireland A on the backfoot every time the All Blacks XV were able to generate any semblance of momentum.
This was perhaps no more evident than in the 53rd minute, when McKenzie waited until teammate Dominic Gardiner found himself ahead of the nearest Irish defender and then delivered a short ball to the blindside flanker which allowed NZ to surge up the field and score their fifth try of the night.
Throw in a strong kicking display to boot, and it was an almost complete performance from the 27-year-old.
But where does that leave McKenzie? Logic dictates that he’s behind Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Stephen Perofeta in the pecking order.
With so little time between now and the 2023 Rugby World Cup, it’s likely that he’ll displace the latter in the All Blacks squad for next year’s tournament. Perofeta looks a genuine talent but New Zealand will play just eight games between now and their opening match with France and it’s difficult to see the Blues playmaker getting a shot against any of the bigger teams, given the current state of the national side.
A spot in the World Cup squad is the minimum that McKenzie will be aiming for, however, and the All Blacks selectors will start genuinely considering whether he’s a viable option to wear No 10 after his strong showing against Ireland A.
Ireland clearly don’t boast the same depth at their disposal as NZ. While they’re genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup, an injury or two could put their tournament in jeopardy, especially if captain and flyhalf extraordinaire Jonathan Sexton goes down. As such, McKenzie’s performance shouldn’t be overstated – but he’s clearly shown that he’s up to the task.
Damian McKenzie isn’t new to the international arena; he already has 40 Tests under his belt and is unlikely to be overawed by taking the reins at first five-eighth, which makes his selection at No 10 for the All Blacks less of a risk than throwing someone like Perofeta to the wolves.
It’s difficult to see McKenzie getting a run on this end-of-year tour for NZ but if he can string together some consistent performances for the Chiefs at flyhalf, Ian Foster will have to seriously evaluate his usefulness in the same role for the All Blacks.
Had the All Blacks XV remained dormant, however, no such evaluation would be necessary – illustrating the importance of a development team to New Zealand’s standing in the world game.
The Maori All Blacks will always hold an important place in New Zealand rugby, both as a development side and a representative team in of itself, and will likely continue to play home-based games against touring sides. The All Blacks XV now allows NZ to have the best of both worlds.
Could Damian McKenzie be the man to guide the All Blacks to World Cup glory next year? We can’t rule it out – but the never question would never have even be raised if it weren’t for the inauguration of the All Blacks XV, and the rebirth of the Junior All Blacks (née New Zealand A) should be welcomed.
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