McKenzie could cement an All Blacks jersey at halfback

Damian McKenzie has been in and out of the All Blacks for a few years, though he has been unable to carve out a consistent place in the 23. In 2021 he has been in resurgent form, with perhaps the greatest aspect being clutch goal kicking. One of the biggest issues to McKenzie cementing a […]

McKenzie could cement an All Blacks jersey at halfback

Damian McKenzie has been in and out of the All Blacks for a few years, though he has been unable to carve out a consistent place in the 23.

In 2021 he has been in resurgent form, with perhaps the greatest aspect being clutch goal kicking.

One of the biggest issues to McKenzie cementing a regular position the All Blacks’ 23 is that he is seen as a 15, a 14 or as a stop-gap replacement for ten.

The problem is that those positions are congested. Under the current coach, the 15 and ten positions are locked down by Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. There is no indication that the two-playmaker set up will be abandoned.

McKenzie has recently had a solid yet unspectacular shift at ten. At ten, McKenzie is basically a less structured version of Beauden Barrett, but without the upside of Beauden Barrett. He lacks the organisational genius of Mo’unga.

Seemingly the open spot for McKenzie is 14. The incumbent 14 is Jordie Barrett, who is once again in great form, but at 15. There is the lingering question as to whether he can transfer those skills to 14.

The alternative 14 in the current All Blacks set-up is Will Jordan, who has also hit top form recently. There is the argument that Jordan has more of the natural flair that a winger should have.

Playing at 15 or 14, McKenzie’s relative lack of size and height puts him behind the eight ball. It makes him less likely to make a dominant tackle, break or bend the line, or take a high ball on offence or defence, which is especially important with the growing prevalence of cross-field kicks.

(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

I say less likely, not unable to, make a dominant tackle. I have seen McKenzie smash Manasa Mataele, who was in full flight, into touch. But also, McKenzie was splatted trying the same thing on Tom Sanders in 2020.

A player does not need to be massive to be useful on attack. Nehe Milner-Skudder was effective because of his agility, acceleration and stepping. But Milner-Skudder’s lack of size may have had something to do with the two serious shoulder injuries that nearly ended his career.

Steve Hansen was fond of saying the difference between success and failure is a few percent. There is the unavoidable truth that in international rugby there is less space, time and the players hit harder.

Having one of the back three at a physical disadvantage invites highly structured teams such as England, South Africa and Ireland to focus their play on putting McKenzie in isolated one-on-one situations.

Yes, at times in the professional era, smaller players have been wrongly disregarded. But with the depth New Zealand has, the All Blacks get to be a lot more picky than any other team. If there are two players of about the same ability and one of the players is 20 kilos smaller and ten centimetres shorter, that player is at an obvious disadvantage.

But the point of this article is not to list reasons why McKenzie should not be in the All Blacks’ 23. It is to raise the idea that perhaps McKenzie’s best position at the international level is not 15, 14 or ten.

McKenzie’s most useful position to the All Blacks may be at halfback. With an ability to also cover at 15, 14 or ten, he is almost the perfect utility back. To be sure, I am not making the case that McKenzie should start at halfback and replace Aaron Smith. I am making the case that McKenzie could be the reserve halfback.

The obvious question is can McKenzie play halfback? The short answer is yes.

McKenzie played halfback this year against the Crusaders when Brad Weber was cruelly sin binned, a few phases after an incorrect call. Also McKenzie stepped into halfback – at Test level, in a similar situation, against France in 2018. On both occasions he acquitted himself well. If he was to concentrate on halfback, McKenzie would quickly reach a very high standard.

McKenzie has the core skill of a halfback. He is a good passer and kicker. I’m sure he could learn to box kick just as well too. He would offer the All Blacks the running option that they have been seeking at halfback. He has playmaker vision. He would unlock new options with the nine-ten combination. His stepping ability could be just what is required to break up rush defences, opening up gaps for Mo’unga to exploit.

Richie Mo'unga of the All Blacks

(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

In a situation with Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and McKenzie on the field, there would be four players with playmaker skills on the field, providing enough options from a midfield scrum to give defensive coaches night terrors.

Though I have said that he lacks size, I have never questioned his commitment. Halfback is the position that negates McKenzie’s lack of bulk. He would be a better defender that Smith or Weber. One of the ways to get easy metres against the current All Blacks is to make the halfback tackle by running one off the ruck. McKenzie would strengthen this aspect of All Blacks’ defence.

The biggest positive McKenzie would offer is in the supporting role. The halfback is often used as the supporting player in back play. Aaron Smith has scored many tries in that role. This kind of unstructured situation is where McKenzie is most dangerous. Imagine if he got the ball in the midfield, 40 metres out in space? He would nearly always score or set up a try.

It also gives the All Blacks another goal kicker on the field. That is useful if the starting goal kicker is having a bad day. Having McKenzie as spare punter or goal kicker would make it easier to play Jordan at 14 instead of Jordie Barrett.

Jordie Barrett

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Having the reserve halfback being able to cover ten, 14 and 15 as well as being a goal kicker would give the All Blacks options for the reserve bench.

Generally there are only three reserve spots for backs. With Beauden Barrett at fullback, there are a lack of backs who can cover the midfield. The other option this would open up is having a forward-heavy bench, with only two back reserves.

Though this would not be an overnight thing. It would take time to learn and practice the skills of a halfback. But in saying that, halfback is a position that McKenzie would naturally take to.

McKenzie at halfback could be the way that McKenzie cements his position in the All Blacks. It would offer a lot of upside.

Assuming McKenzie can pick up the skills of a halfback, he would offer a lot of additional skills: stronger defence, playmaking ability, lethal support play and opening up options like playing Jordan in the wing or a forward-heavy reserves bench. Another thing to remember is that Ian Foster likes playing players out of position.

Source : The Roar More   

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Eight Irishmen are picked for the Lions but Sexton misses out

Warren Gatland has picked his Lions squad for the 2021 tour to South Africa and it is the usual mix of veterans and debutants, surefire selections and wildcards, and some glaring omissions. But Gatland has proven before that he makes the right calls. This is his third tour as coach and he is one of […]

Eight Irishmen are picked for the Lions but Sexton misses out

Warren Gatland has picked his Lions squad for the 2021 tour to South Africa and it is the usual mix of veterans and debutants, surefire selections and wildcards, and some glaring omissions.

But Gatland has proven before that he makes the right calls.

This is his third tour as coach and he is one of the most successful Lions coaches in history, having achieved a series win against Australia in 2013 and a drawn series against New Zealand in 2017.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Gatland has chosen 37 players in all, which includes eight from Ireland. Tadhg Furlong was one player pencilled in on everyone’s list and he will likely start all three Tests. Only possible injury will affect his chances.

Robbie Henshaw was a star for Ireland during the recent Six Nations and has a very good chance of being a Test Lion. Like Furlong, he was also a 2017 tourist but failed to make the Test side.

Conor Murray is one of the most experienced Lions in the side, having played in both the 2013 and ’17 series. He is likely to add to his Test caps. Iain Henderson is another veteran from the 2017 tour and he has shown good form for Ireland and Ulster.

Tadhg Beirne was impressive in the Six Nations and should do good things on the tour. His added versatility of being able to play at both second row and flanker increases his chances of winning a Test cap.

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Jack Conan and Andrew Porter may not have made many people’s selections but were both impressive during the Six Nations and will want to build on their good form and reputations.

Bundee Aki is another surprise selection but his power in attack will be an asset against those big South African centres. Aki is also the first Connacht player to be picked for the Lions since Ciaran Fitzgerald and John O’Driscoll went on the ill-fated 1983 tour to New Zealand.

Possibly the biggest selection commission is Jonny Sexton. The Irish captain was pinged as a possible Lions captain during the Six Nations but he has suffered injury concerns in recent weeks, causing him to miss Leinster’s losing semi-final in the Heineken Cup.

The Lions will miss Sexton’s ability and experience. He featured in all of the last six Lions Tests. But it’s probably the right call to make, health-wise. The tour to South Africa is sure to be an attritional one.

Johnny Sexton runs at Wales duo Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

James Ryan and Gary Ringrose are two more players that would have possibly expected to get picked. Another big omission is Welsh centre Jonathan Davies, who starred in both the last two Lions series but suffered a knee injury in the 2019 World Cup and has subsequently struggled to recapture his previous form. English duo Kyle Sinkler and Billy Vunipola are two more who would have made most people’s Lions selections.

Keith Earls is another who showed great form during the Six Nations, and was actually a member of the last Lions tour to South Africa in 2009, but he’s possibly a bit too old now and there are several young players coming through.

That includes Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit, who was one of the stars of the recent Six Nations. At 20 he is the youngest member of the squad. Scottish winger Duhan van der Merwe, who is actually South African by birth, was the top try scorer in the recent Six Nations.

Sam Simmonds is a shock selection for the squad. The English back rower hasn’t played a Test match in a number of years but has been a star for his club Exeter. Likewise, Rory Sutherland of Scotland was facing possible paralysis three years ago, but he made an amazing comeback and has been one of the stars for his country recently.

There are several players who are already stars and should only enhance their reputations on tour. Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola have done it all before and Hamish Watson will soon join their ranks.

Leading all the players will be Alun Wyn-Jones, the only survivor from the 2009 tour to South Africa. This is his fourth successive tour and he featured in the Test series in all his previous tours.

He has a somewhat unique Lions Test record, having played nine, winning four, losing four and drawing one.

Alun Wyn Jones of the British & Irish Lions

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It is a very exciting squad but what of the opposition? South Africa are the reigning world champions but they haven’t played a match since winning the World Cup in November 2019. They will be a formidable opponent at home but it’s difficult to gauge their quality.

The 2021 Lions tour is sure to be an exciting one. The 2021 Six Nations was the most exciting tournament of its kind, possibly ever, and hopefully the players can take that form to South Africa. There are always players that come back with enhanced reputations, and wildcards that become stars. They’re known as bolters.

After all, it’s doubtful that there were many who expected much from a teenager, just out of school to achieve much after being picked to tour in 1955. But that player went on to be one of the most decorated Lions players, winning ten caps over two tours and becoming the Lions’ top try scorer. That player? Tony O’Reilly.

It’s great that the date is finally here as there had been a lot of speculation around whether the tour would even go ahead, due to the pandemic. There had been discussion of playing the matches in Australia, or New Zealand, or Britain and Ireland, or even postponing the tour or scrapping it entirely.

Instead, the tour looks set to follow its planned itinerary, with eight matches in total, including three Tests against the Springboks.

Source : The Roar More   

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