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.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

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