With Lima Sopoaga moving on, the All Blacks are going to have to build their depth at first-five, with Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie the two men ready to step up.
NOW THAT LIMA SOPOAGA HAS OPTED TO HEAD OFFSHORE, THE ALL BLACKS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO DEEPEN THEIR TALENT POOL AT FIRST-FIVE THIS YEAR.
It’s maybe true that Lima Sopoaga thought he had seen the writing on the wall. There he was, clasping on to his position as Beauden Barrett’s back-up first-five, acutely aware that Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie were charging up fast behind him.
Sopoaga, with a reported $1 million a season offer from Wasps, decided, in January, that he should take it.
Some may feel that it wasn’t the right decision – that he has given up a near certain place in the All Blacks’ 2019 World Cup squad and too easily and readily brought the curtain down on a test career that had many years to run.
With 16 test caps behind him, Sopoaga had given himself the base of experience required to have won the trust and confidence of the national selectors.
But there is, perhaps, a larger contingent of observers who will feel that Sopoaga has made a smart play heading to Wasps now, rather than extending his stay in New Zealand.
Smart because had he stayed there was considerable danger that by next year, one or possibly both of Mo’unga and McKenzie would have leapfrogged Sopoaga in the All Blacks’ pecking order.
And of the two young pretenders, Sopoaga would have been more wary of Mo’unga. There is just something about the 23-year-old Crusader that imbues a sense of confidence and intrigue about how he is going to develop.
Mostly that comes from his demeanour. That’s the component that sets him apart, or at least initially draws good judges of talent to him.
The best No 10s both now and throughout history share a common trait of being in possession of unflappable temperaments.
Daniel Carter never once looked hurried in his 13-year test career. He never looked panicked or troubled and if he made a mistake, he’d shrug it off. Stephen Larkham’s nickname was Bernie – which may need a little explaining to a younger generation.
There was a Hollywood hit in the 1980s called Weekend at Bernie’s where the aforementioned character dies at the start of the movie only to be carried everywhere as if he were still alive. It’s a bit random, but such was Larkham’s laconic state, the name suited and stuck.
Jonny Wilkinson was another whose mental composure was a significant part of his offering. Under pressure he rarely faltered and his head was always clear enough to execute the big plays.
Mo’unga, while clearly not yet worthy of comparison with this trio of legends in terms of achievement and standing, does hold up to scrutiny if the question is confined to temperament.
Former All Black and Crusaders coach Leon MacDonald made such a claim last year the day before his side played the British & Irish Lions in Christchurch.
Asked about the readiness of Mo’unga to play in what was being billed as the unofficial fourth test, MacDonald said: “There is a lot of Dan Carter in Richie Mo’unga. Very rarely do you see him rattled at all, at any level. He’s very casual, he enjoys a laugh, he’s a bit of a joker and I think you need that temperament as a 10 because there’s a lot of pressure.
“I watched the [America’s Cup] sailing this morning and they just seem to have ice-cold blood in their veins under immense pressure, and that’s Richie. He doesn’t seem to be fazed and for a young guy to control a team like the Crusaders, with a lot of big personalities, a lot of big strong men who have played a lot of rugby – to run the ship as confidently as he does at his age is a real credit to him.
“He’s got a big future and he’s starting to realise the potential that a lot of people saw in him when he was at school. I don’t want to put pressure on Richie and say there’s Dan Carter performance brewing tomorrow, but there are similarities to his game. When I was playing, Dan was starting and he had the same attributes.
“Richie has had a fantastic year for us – he bounces back from injury well and he’s really resilient. He reviews his performances really harshly. He’s tough on himself and wants to be better but he has a nice balance in his life. I think he’s going to get better and better and at one stage we’ll see him in a black jersey.”
As it happened, Mo’unga fell flat against the Lions, unable to find any space or rhythm in the face of the visitors’ supremely good rush defence.
But MacDonald had made his point and he was right, Mo’unga did end up in a black jersey when he was called up to play against a French XV on the end of season tour.
THERE IS A LOT OF DAN CARTER IN RICHIE MO’UNGA... HE’S VERY CASUAL, HE ENJOYS A LAUGH, HE’S A BIT OF A JOKER AND I THINK YOU NEED THAT TEMPERAMENT AS A 10 BECAUSE THERE’S A LOT OF PRESSURE.’ LEON MacDONALD
The first real sign of Mo’unga’s class came on view in 2016. The Crusaders, as they freely admit, were stung by the departures they suffered at the end of 2015.
They had, for several years, enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at first-five having at their disposal three All Blacks in Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor.
They knew they would lose Carter after the World Cup, but they were hopeful, maybe even confident they would retain Slade and possibly also Taylor.
But both of them stunned when they agreed deals to join French clubs, and the Crusaders, with no time to snare alternatives, came into 2016 with a competitive process very much alive to fill the void at No 10.
Mo’unga, Mitch Hunt, Ben Volavola and Marty McKenzie were all hoping to make their position their own. But the battle never materialised.
Mo’unga earned the first start due to his preseason form and by week four, it was all over. The Crusaders had their man.
Mo’unga barely put a foot wrong. He kicked his goals, picked good options, passed beautifully, made the odd break and ran the show as if he was much older and more experienced.
The Crusaders machine had proven once again to be seamless. Just as Carter had slipped in to replace the great Andrew Mehrtens, Mo’unga had made easy work of replacing Carter.
It was no wonder that by late May, Crusaders captain Kieran Read was beaming at Eden Park after his side had beaten the Blues 26-21. It had been a tough game to win. The Crusaders were forced to dig deep, to hold their nerve and to take all their chances. Which they did and their 21-year-old general had been the star of the show.
“He’s got an old head on young shoulders,” said Read of Mo’unga. “He’s settled so well into the team and gives everyone around him real confidence. He’s a natural No 10. He does everything you want in a No 10.”
For a first season in Super Rugby it was a special effort by Mo’unga. Unless they already knew, no one would have guessed he was so inexperienced and as impressive as he was in season one, he topped it last year.
Having made something of a splash as an unknown entity in 2016, Mo’unga could so easily have suffered the fate of so many before him and stagnated last year.
So many players have found it hard to push on after a promising start – as if they have been found out by their opponents or their magic has worn off.
Not Mo’unga. He went up a level by adding more to his game. He had more time on the ball, worked his options better and became more of a direct threat.
The ultimate proof of that was the way the Crusaders played. They were quite brilliant and won the title, losing just one game along the way.
From being guilty of attacking laterally too often in their recent past and lacking variation in their play, they were direct and lethal last year.
They averaged 34.5 points per game and scored almost five tries per game.
It was a stunning effort and at the heart of it all was Mo’unga. Back in the day they used to say that no side could win Super Rugby without a world class No 10 and that still rings true. Look at the men who have steered their respective sides to victory: Carlos Spencer, Mehrtens, Larkham, Carter, Morne Steyn, Quade Cooper,
Aaron Cruden, Bernard Foley, Sopoaga, Barrett and now Mo’unga.
There isn’t a dud to be found on that list, and once Mo’unga had a winner’s medal around his neck, he was suddenly very much of interest to the All Blacks selectors.
That much became clear when Barrett was ruled out of the third Bledisloe Cup clash in Brisbane and Mo’unga was sent for as cover. He spent a few days with the team and then rejoined them in Europe when he was drafted in to play against the French XV in Lyon.
“He’s young, still in the infancy of his career and led the Crusaders well during the Super competition,” Hansen said when Mo’unga was drafted. “He’s got a kicking game when he needs to kick, he can run, his passing game is okay. He’s got the fundamentals of a good five-eighth.
“This is a different environment which comes with a lot of pressure which can be overwhelming for some people. We’ll do what we do with all the young fellas and take our time.”
The suspicion may well be growing that Mo’unga is the one who will force his way on to the All Blacks bench by 2019, but it won’t be without a colossal battle.
McKenzie is an incredible box of tricks and has the head start of having been an All Black for two seasons already. That matters.
McKenzie has tasted life in the test arena. He knows the speed of the game, the pressures that are exerted and the expectations that need to be met.
What he doesn’t yet have is the saddle time in the No 10 jersey. It was his chosen position in his younger years but since pushing into the professional ranks, most of his rugby has been at fullback.
The skill-sets are similar but how they are used and pieced together isn’t. The All Blacks know McKenzie has the speed, agility and core skills to play No 10, but they need to see what he can offer in terms of game management.
And that is the big unknown with McKenzie. He has a phenomenal ability to make things happen and pull off the near impossible at Super Rugby.
But last year during the test season he was guilty of trying to make too much happen – of overplaying his hand.
He made costly errors. He threw the ball to no one in Sydney to give away the softest try. A week later, in the first minute, he lobbed an intercept pass straight into the arms of Israel Folau and there was the occasional nervousness bordering on panic to his play.
“I have said he is like a fly in the bottle,” said Hansen. “But he is getting better at that. He doesn’t hit the sides so often. He’s managing to go round and round without hitting the sides. He’s learning how to play test rugby, and test rugby is not like Super Rugby where you can just do audacious things and get away with it because the opposition are a lot sharper and a lot more in tune to making sure their defence is right.
“Whilst we don’t want to stop his flair, we just have to get him better at the risk and reward concept of what he is trying to do. Like every young test player he’s still learning but he is an exciting prospect.
“I think we will see him at 10 next year in Super Rugby and deep down in my own heart of hearts that is where he is going to play most of his rugby.”
Every New Zealander, even those who care little about rugby, knows the story within the story at the 2011 World Cup. The All Blacks ran into all sorts of dramas with their firstfives.
They came into 2011 without knowing who their back-up to Daniel Carter would be and despite settling on Colin Slade they were desperate to not find out whether they had made the right choice.
The All Blacks pinned all their hopes on Carter making it through the tournament in one piece – a dream that was shattered before the last pool game when he ripped his groin. It was the disaster of all disasters and when Slade then damaged his knee in the quarter-final and then his replacement, Aaron Cruden suffered the same fate in the final, Stephen Donald became the hero of the hour.
Things worked themselves out in 2011 but no one wants a repeat of that scenario. The All Blacks rode their luck and they don’t want to go into 2019 with the same uncertainty around their first-fives.
But the situation, at this point in time, is eerily similar. Barrett, much like Carter, is the screamingly obvious number one. He was World Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 and the man the All Blacks need to stay fit and be in the No 10 jersey for most of the tournament in Japan next year.
And now, because of Sopoaga’s departure, there is no ready-made back-up. McKenzie has test experience but not at No 10. He hasn’t even got much Super Rugby experience in the role.
Mo’unga has two Super Rugby campaigns under his belt, but no test experience. He has spent a couple of weeks with the All Blacks which is helpful but in no way makes him ready.
The challenge for the All Blacks is to use
WHILST WE DON’T WANT TO STOP HIS FLAIR, WE JUST HAVE TO GET HIM BETTER AT THE RISK AND REWARD CONCEPT OF WHAT HE IS TRYING TO DO. LIKE EVERY YOUNG TEST PLAYER HE’S STILL LEARNING BUT HE IS AN EXCITING PROSPECT.’ STEVE HANSEN
the next 18 months to build their depth at first-five. They need to have options other than Barrett – players who can come off the bench, or even start tests without it being a national source of concern.
Essentially they need to use the next 18 months to give McKenzie and/or Mo’unga as much game time as they feel prudent. Modern test football demands that teams have a viable No 10 on the bench – someone who can be injected into the game and change the picture.
The All Blacks actually like to run with three No 10s in their squad because it is a position that takes casualties. These days No 10s have to tackle big men and it takes its toll.
Some may feel time is short, that there isn’t enough football between now and September 2019 to build the likes of McKenzie and Mo’unga into reliable, high performing All Blacks No 10s.
Assistant All Blacks coach Ian Foster doesn’t buy into that at all. He says there is ample football for players to be tested and to develop.
The big thing Foster wants to see from emerging No 10s this year is an obvious sense of growth from week to week. At the highest level, the most important question that is asked of a first-five is whether his game management is up to it.
Can he control the game with his option taking and execution? Is he putting his team in the right places on the field? Test football runs to a different rhythm to Super Rugby and patience is a required attribute.
And this is where McKenzie and Mo’unga appear to be at different stages of development.
McKenzie is an electric talent who is capable of the most sublime moments. In his limited time at first-five for the Chiefs he has shown he can take the ball almost on the gainline and still get his pass away. That is gold because it renders a rush defence impotent.
He can also wriggle into holes that aren’t there and make something out of nothing. But he is prone, still, to overdoing things. He made crucial errors in the opening
game of the year against the Crusaders and cost his side points. With McKenzie there is no discernible sense that game management will be something he targets as a priority. It is almost as if he finds percentage rugby too much of a bore. He just can’t find the discipline within himself to keep things simple and as much as the All Blacks want creativity, they also need McKenzie to be doing the basics and to be doing them well. Mo’unga can’t or hasn’t yet offered the same magical touches as McKenzie. He has, though, shown he can control the game with a degree of authority and patience. He isn’t so erratic or impatient and while it’s far from ideal that he remains out of action with a broken jaw, there is time enough left for him to further press his claim ahead of the June tests. The expectation is that both will be picked in the squad to play France and, in all probability, it will be McKenzie who earns the first crack from the bench. The Chiefs man is ideal for that role given his ability to play fullback as well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s locked in as the No 2.
If Barrett was injured or the selectors decided to rest him, they might actually start with Mo’unga whose skill-set seems better suited to be on from the start.
The bigger question is how much time can the selectors find to develop their talent? They still need to win tests and develop their patterns and cohesion this year and consistency of selection is the way to do that.
Winning builds confidence and understanding so Barrett is likely to start most games.
“I think there is plenty of time,” says Foster. “It is, I suppose the ultimate balancing act finding opportunities to grow players and yet keep developing the team, but what we are aware of is that if the team is humming along, it does make it easier for younger players to come in and contribute.”
The selectors will no doubt have a reasonably firm plan about when and for how long the developing No 10s will play. The games against Argentina, Japan and Italy stack as good opportunities to give either Mo’unga or McKenzie a start.
And by the end of the year, it could well be that New Zealand, once again, has three credible options at first-five.
NUMBER ONE Beauden Barrett is head and shoulders the best No 10 in New Zealand.
DRAMA RAMA Everyone knows the dramas the All Blacks had finding another No 10 at the 2011 World Cup.
DEEP POOL At the 2015 World Cup the All Blacks had three quality first-fives, with third choice Colin Slade good enough to start for most other teams.
CRAFT TIME Damian McKenzie is using his time with the Chiefs to learn the art of playing first-five.
COOL HEAD Everyone who knows Richie Mo’unga says his temperament is one of his best attributes.