One of the big questions for every top-tier nation ahead of the World Cup will be: who do we pick at number 10? There is still a surprising amount of uncertainty lurking around every corner given the tournament’s proximity, and there will be a few more spiky twists in the tale before it ever begins.
Hosts France have a choice between Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert, their bitter rivals across the channel an even wider one among George Ford, Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith. Ireland has to find the right number two behind Johnny Sexton, and the whole of Australia will be on its knees, praying that Quade Cooper is fit to play.
Nothing is settled, everything is up in the air. In New Zealand, it is no different. Even with Beauden Barrett likely to stay in the backfield, there is a lively joust developing between the incumbent outside half, Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders, and sabbatical-returnee Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs.
Earlier in the season, McKenzie said he hoped that his return home would coincide with a shift to first five-eighth, and spoke about both in the same breath.
“It is definitely a motivation, for sure,” he said.
“I loved my time in Japan, it’s a great place, the rugby’s really good, and enjoyable. Then again, there’s no place like home, I love it back here, and being away for so long and then coming back you realise how much you miss the place. So, it’s a decision I’ll have to make.
“If I end up playing 10, [for the Chiefs, I want to] make the most of that and try and lead a team. And I guess the versatility of being able to play at the back is also helpful. So, we’ll see if I can nail that.
“I’m keen to play a bit of 10 this year, but it’ll end up being a bit of both, I’d say. We’ve got some good 10s at the moment and guys who can interchange between that first receiver role and being at the back.”
McKenzie may not have been holding the Chiefs over a barrel about the spot he wanted to play, not exactly, but the desire to have a crack at first five-eighth and put down a marker there is unmistakable.
Whatever the state of pre-season negotiations, it is working out very well indeed in practice. The Chiefs are currently topping the Super Rugby Pacific table with a perfect record of ten wins out of ten matches played. Damian McKenzie has started seven of those games at number 10, and only one at fullback, so he has enjoyed a premium platform from which to launch his bid to play first five-eighth for New Zealand at the World Cup.
How has a player valued mostly for his explosive impact, and ability to play in space from the backfield, transformed into a game manager on the front line?
It is the opposite of the view of his talents taken by previous All Blacks coaches. Of Damian McKenzie’s 46 games for representative teams from New Zealand, only five have been as the starting number 10. 25 have been as the run-on fullback and the other 16 have been from the bench as a ‘finisher’.
So, what has changed? How has a player valued mostly for his explosive impact, and ability to play in space from the backfield, transformed into a game manager on the front line?
There is plenty of cross-over between the 10 and 15 in the modern game. Think Beauden Barrett and Stephen Perofeta for the Blues, or Richie Mo’unga and Fergus Burke for the Crusaders. All the same, the great majority of the decisions in the choice of play will be made by the man wearing number 10 on his back.
Why has McKenzie been able to push his case so successfully for the Chiefs in 2023? On a recent edition of The Breakdown show on Sky Sports, Sir John Kirwan suggested that the fluidity of play stimulated by quicker ruck resolutions has made McKenzie a far more viable option in the halves:
“The predictability of pods, of the first five taking it to the line, is over. Damian has probably taken a bit from his fullback play and taken it to first five.
“He’ll quite happily run laterally, and people can run off him.”
There are still caveats. Although the Chiefs book-ended their round one win over the Crusaders with a repeat victory in round 10, McKenzie had two kicks blocked down in the second match, and over the season he has committed three times as many turnovers (21) as his arch-rival in the red-and-black, Richie Mo’unga (7).
But the single most remarkable stat from the two games between the Chiefs and Crusaders was the change in scoring pattern once Damian McKenzie dropped to fullback or second receiver, after Josh Ioane (in round one) and Bryn Gatland (in round 10) came off the bench against the men from Christchurch.
The Chiefs won the battle with Ioane and McKenzie on the pitch by 24 points to 0 in the second half at Orangetheory Stadium, and by 15 points to 3 with Gatland and McKenzie paired together in Hamilton for the last half-hour in round 10. The Chiefs were winning their matches against the Crusaders by 39-3 when D-Mac was playing mostly at second, not first receiver.
Here are some examples of McKenzie’s lethal impact when playing at second receiver from the return match in the Waikato:
As an attacking force, McKenzie is at his best when playing under no immediate pressure, with space in front of him and the defence already committed to a particular attitude. In the first instance, Crusaders No 12 David Havili commits inside and early. That allows McKenzie to do what he does best: take the gap, run for the corner flag and link up with his mates on the outside. In the second example (which set up the position for the Chief’s game-deciding score), the angle of run and support is exactly the same.
It was Josh Ioane’s appearance in the second half of the first game which pushed McKenzie further out and sparked the Chiefs’ comeback:
Ioane takes the ball to the line to attract the rush, and Jack Goodhue is already backing off when McKenzie receives the ball, opening up the diagonal run and the link to Shaun Stevenson outside him.
There is a strong sense that Damian McKenzie is most impressive when the responsibility for game management is balanced, and evenly distributed between two playmakers at 10 and 15. On occasion, that balance can be quite literal:
McKenzie starts to the right, and Ioane to the left of the scrum. In order to monitor the threat presented by McKenzie in space, the Crusaders have to give up a temporary four-to-two overlap on Ioane’s side.
Even when Damian McKenzie is playing successfully ‘in structure’, the same themes tend to float to the surface:
McKenzie turns sideways and shovels a pass at Samisoni Taukei’aho, and it is only the hooker’s phenomenal strength after first contact is made in the tackle which carries the ball forwards. On the following play, McKenzie is in his element as a hole between the last Crusaders forward and the first back (Braydon Ennor) opens invitingly. The red-and-black centre shows his hand, and the Chiefs first five is deep enough to take the gap with an arcing run for the corner, and a killing back-of-the-hand offload to Stevenson.
McKenzie’s fullback instincts do not always work so kindly when the defence remains more disciplined in front of him, and the play remains firmly in structure:
In the first example, there are some tell-tale features of the counter-attacking maverick playing in space, with the same cross-field running line and even a hitch-kick thrown in for good measure. The players outside McKenzie know neither his intentions in the teeth of the defence, nor the right lines to run in support.
In the second instance, there are seven Chiefs players on the right side of the field, all ahead of the ball when McKenzie begins to meander back towards them. There is only one thing he can hope to do, and that is break at the right moment to bring at least one or two of them back into play.
Damian McKenzie’s Chiefs are riding high in Super Rugby Pacific 2023. They have won all of their ten games so far and beaten the reigning champions twice in the process. Will it be enough to catapult McKenzie into the New Zealand starting XV for the World Cup, ahead of his rival from Christchurch, Richie Mo’unga?
The jury is still out. Previous coaches of the All Blacks all saw Damian McKenzie as either a fullback or an impact player off the bench, and in the two games versus the Crusaders he achieved his most concrete results when he shifted to No 15, with either Bryn Gatland or Josh Ioane taking the reins at first five-eighth.
In the latest round of action against the Highlanders, he dropped to fullback after an early injury to Peniasi Malimali and spent a profitable hour on the counter-attack as the Chiefs topped the 50-point mark.
The pocket rocket is at his best when the primary responsibility for playmaking is shared, and in this respect at least he is on solid ground with Jordie Barrett and his brother Beauden already in situ for the run-on side. But if the All Blacks want to move Jordie back to 15, or select Will Jordan in the spot, there could be trouble ahead for the Chiefs’ man. It would take more than a splash of moonlight, and a touch of romance, for McKenzie to face the music for one last dance in his preferred position at the World Cup.
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