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FEATURE Raw talent McKenzie primed to become next All Blacks No.10

Raw talent McKenzie primed to become next All Blacks No.10
3 months ago

New Zealand has an uncanny ability to keep producing world class talent when everyone least expects it to.

In 2016 there was a sense of trepidation about what life would look like for the All Blacks without their two all-time superstars – Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

How could two such legends of the game ever be replaced? The All Blacks were surely going to be in trouble – vulnerable without so much experience, leadership and ability.

As it turned out, Sam Cane stepped up at openside to give a pretty good impression of the great man, and a couple of years later Ardie Savea found his feet at international level and became a whole new phenomenon.

Richie Mo'unga
Richie Mo’unga was New Zealand’s established playmaker but his sabbatical in Japan has created a vacancy at 10 (Photo Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

At No. 10, the transition was virtually painless. Carter signed off his illustrious career as World Player of the Year – the third time he had received the award with this one coming on the back of his masterful performances in the knock-out rounds of the 2015 World Cup.

Carter kicked goals, dropped goals and put his team exactly where they needed to be. How were the All Blacks going to cope with losing a player of that calibre in a position of such influence?

Easy…they ushered in Beauden Barrett, who brought his sensational running game to the party and the All Blacks went through 2016 losing just one game. The new king of playmaking was duly crowned World Player of the Year and again in 2017.

Here we are in 2024, and once again, the All Blacks – a few months out from the start of their Test campaign – have found themselves with a vacancy to fill at No. 10.

Robertson will be starting to feel relatively confident that history is repeating because he has at his disposal, on the evidence of the first six rounds of Super Rugby, one of the hottest 10s in the world game.

Richie Mo’unga, who after a slow start in the Test arena, established himself as the All Blacks’ preferred No. 10 midway through 2022 and produced a compelling World Cup campaign in 2023, is in Japan and off limits.

His experience, fast feet and all-round game management would be useful qualities for the All Blacks to have at their disposal in 2024 – a point new coach Scott Robertson has acknowledged by suggesting New Zealand’s eligibility rules need to be updated.

Robertson has been campaigning to lift the current ban on picking overseas players, but it’s not necessarily being driven – as has been suggested – to enable Mo’unga to add to his 50 Test caps.

It’s more a general sense that market trends have changed, and that New Zealand is perhaps needlessly limiting its selection pool on the wrongful assumption that to loosen eligibility would destroy the domestic game.

Robertson, like everyone else, knows New Zealand’s ability to unearth great No. 10s and he’ll be starting to feel relatively confident that history is repeating because he has at his disposal, on the evidence of the first six rounds of Super Rugby, one of the hottest 10s in the world game.

Damian McKenzie is setting Super Rugby alight with the Chiefs – playing a brand of rugby that is fresh and exhilarating. His game is based on speed of movement, unpredictability and exquisite skill execution.

Damian McKenzie
McKenzie’s form in the first half of Super Rugby Pacific has put him at the front of the queue for NZ (Photo Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

McKenzie is buzzing about, testing defences every which way he knows and his energy, work-rate and desire to be on the ball as much as he is, reflects his acknowledgement before Super Rugby kicked off that he was eager to establish his presence in the competition.

Despite entering professional rugby as a specialist No. 10, he’s spent most of his career to date as a full-back.

But he’s come into 2024 with a clear ambition to re-establish himself as a recognised No. 10 – highly aware, of course, that the All Blacks are in the market for a new playmaker.

“You’ve got to embrace it, there’s obviously an opportunity there this year,” he said in relation to Mo’unga’s absence.

“It’s clear and obvious, there’s an opportunity there in the first-five position. That’s the position I want to be playing, that’s where I want to be – being able to lead this team.”

As well as he’s played, there are still a few questions to answer, most notably whether McKenzie can provide greater reassurance about his game management and ability to provide the astute, calm decision-making that is imperative in international rugby.

McKenzie, who at 1.77m and 80kg, looks like he may snap in a stiff breeze, is using his electric footwork and acceleration and ability to move laterally at frightening speed to open defences.

The Chiefs are using a variety of structured plays where McKenzie works the Johnny Sexton double loop to get on the outside of defences and no doubt this is something the All Blacks will be considering adopting later this year.

So too will they have seen how the Chiefs have licensed McKenzie to drop into the backfield to counterattack from deep when opponents kick long.

He set up the first try of the season against the Crusaders when he collected a loose kick in his own 22 and then sliced through the advancing defence.

D-Mac, as he’s known, is playing the house down and has been head and shoulders above all the other New Zealand No. 10s in Super Rugby and having won nearly 50 caps – four of which he’s started at first-five – he’s the obvious and maybe only choice for Robertson to use as his primary playmaker.

But as well as he’s played, there are still a few questions to answer, most notably whether McKenzie can provide greater reassurance about his game management and ability to provide the astute, calm decision-making that is imperative in international rugby.

Damian McKenzie
McKenzie produced a sparkling display against Uruguay at the RWC but had to settle for cameo roles in the big games (Photo Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

For all McKenzie’s brilliance, there has long been this sense that he lacks the pragmatism that defines the best 10s – that his inherent risk-taking makes him as much a liability in the Test arena as it does a potent weapon.

This dates back to 2017 when former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen used McKenzie as his full-back after Jordie Barrett was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury.

McKenzie produced unforgettable moments of brilliance, combined with a touch of wildness that was costly at times, leading Hansen to famously observe later in the year: “You need people that can bust open a game and he is a little bit like a fly in a bottle, old Damian. He is all over the place.

“Sometimes it comes off and other times he is sitting on the side of the bottle. He is getting better at it though as he understands what Test rugby is about.

The lack of game time McKenzie has been given at No. 10 in the Test arena has made it hard to shake this idea that coaches love that he can break open defences with his running, but they don’t necessarily have full faith in his ability to make consistently good, strategic decisions when he plays there.

“I am on record as saying he is probably going to be a better No. 10 than a No.15. He is starting to tell me that might not be right, but we will wait and see.”

Hansen’s gut-feeling that McKenzie was shaping more as a full-back started to play out as true, and between 2017 and 2022, the little maestro was barely seen in the No. 10 jersey.

It was partly because he offered so much value at full-back, partly because there was a lack of trust that he’d balance his game accordingly.

That changed in 2023 when the Chiefs decided to use him at first-five almost exclusively, and All Blacks coach Ian Foster gave McKenzie the No. 10 jersey for the opening Test of the year in Argentina.

But come the big World Cup games, McKenzie only made the bench and was typically only injected late in the game.

Damian McKenzie
McKenzie has now had a regular run of games at 10 for the Chiefs to showcase his talent (Photo Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The lack of game time McKenzie has been given at No. 10 in the Test arena has made it hard to shake this idea that coaches love that he can break open defences with his running, but they don’t necessarily have full faith in his ability to make consistently good, strategic decisions when he plays there.

It’s one thing to pass and dash in Super Rugby to devastating effect, but Robertson will be hoping to see McKenzie prove in the back half of Super Rugby that he has an astute kicking game, and an ability to not always take risks when there is an alternative low percentage option.

McKenzie needs to show he understands that he doesn’t need to produce something magical every time he touches the ball and that his role as an All Blacks No. 10 will be about consistent execution of the basics more than it will be splitting defences apart with his unpredictability.

Instilling in McKenzie the required element of balance, to produce the variety of rugby the All Blacks will need to be successful, is one of the great challenges facing Robertson and his coaching team.

The production line has produced a raw talent at 10, but it is one that needs to be refined and polished for the transition from Mo’unga to McKenzie to be seamless.

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Comments

24 Comments
J
Jasyn 99 days ago

Mounga is not on ‘sabbatical’ as that caption says, he's taken the money and now apparently plans to just do what a lot of kiwi's do, just waltz into the tongan side so he can have his money cake and eat it too.

Samoa (now basically a squad of Kiwis and a few Aussies) are at least seeing sense and looking to limit overseas born players because frankly, it doesn't make them all that more competitive having well paid former ABs and Wallabies trotting around in a marriage of convenience.

K
Kenward K. 101 days ago

Maybe, just maybe, the All Blacks missed an opportunity to let Damian Mckenzie loose for the last ten minutes or so, against the Springboks in the World Cup final - a bit of chaos amidst all the control.

N
Nickers 101 days ago

He showed enough for the ABs at 10 last year to cast doubts aside. Few better players in the world when he is up flat and playing directly. The biggest risk to him and his future in the ABs is staying fit. If he can string a full SR and RC campaign together consecutively people will be talking about him as the best player in the world by the end of this year.

m
monty 101 days ago

Dmac needs to stay at 10 to increase his strike rate. Open play ball in hand he’s got ghe confidence but there’s other aspects of 1st 5 he needs game to perfect. More important the scope must shift to a 2nd choice able to come off the bench. Similar speed can play full back plus 10 iz ruebin love. Iv seen this kid at 10 and 12 plus he’s fast.

E
Easy_Duzz-it 102 days ago

Imagine gas lighting d-mac when mounga is in his prime . NZ rugby is on the decline

J
Jon 102 days ago

Razor has had a renegade first five on his hands for the last 7 years. Mounga was the first quarterback type 1st5 that tried to play with the team on his shoulders, taken on far more responsibility with ball in hand. Razor was able to keep up with his young 10 and enabled him to lead his side to title after title.

Damian McKenzie is Richie Mo’unga on steroids. Razor will need to raise his control of the game plan to another level if he’s to ensure his team can play around DMac. If Jordan is also going to come in at the back I really like the idea of Stevenson on the wing. Narawa also seems really good in the air and with the return kick.

j
johnz 102 days ago

No Cane was never anything like the great one, please! What was it O'Mahony said again? As for Barrett, he's never had the complete game of Carter. Notably, no WCs have been won since the two greats retired in 2015, so your glowing analysis isn't quite backed by hard evidence Gregor.

B
Bull Shark 102 days ago

It would be awesome to see DMac be given a long enough crack at no.10 to stake his claim. Such an exciting player. Barret and Mounga out the picture in the short term is a good thing.

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