McKen­zie makes play for first-five

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE - ROBERT VAN ROYEN

OPIN­ION: Damian McKen­zie cer­tainly didn’t si­lence the howls for Steve Hansen to bury his first-five ex­per­i­ment, but he did some­what hush them in Dunedin last night.

Minus a rough open­ing 10 min­utes in the third test against France, it must be said the 23-year-old put in a de­cent shift in his first start in the No 10 jersey for the All Blacks.

Let’s not get car­ried away. He’s still bet­ter suited to full­back, and the sooner Cru­saders first-five Richie Mo’unga, the most nat­u­ral pivot in the squad, gets a start the bet­ter.

But McKen­zie, start­ing for the in­jured Beau­den Bar­rett (con­cus­sion), no doubt did enough for Hansen to re­tain him as his sec­ond-choice pivot mov­ing for­ward.

Frus­trat­ingly, he was still a mixed bag, and too of­ten a mo­ment of his un­doubted class was fol­lowed by an un­forced er­ror.

His sec­ond half restart, which didn’t go the re­quired 10 me­tres, was the per­fect ex­am­ple, and Hansen didn’t hide his frus­tra­tion in the coach­ing box.

It was quite the op­po­site seven min­utes later, when he took ad­van­tage of some sus­pect French de­fence, run­ning around wing Gael Fickou and pow­er­ing the All Blacks to a 28-14 lead, af­ter his suc­cess­ful con­ver­sion.

There’s no doubt about it, the kid has wheels and, in open space, he’s a night­mare for the op­po­si­tion.

But, re­fer to the mixed bag point above, and he was at it again a few mo­ments later when he nearly had a pass picked off and taken to the house.

It would have been his sec­ond of the night, af­ter French half­back Mor­gan Parra pounced on a GETTY IMAGES reck­less pass in the early stages of the match.

Mo­ments later, an over­cooked kick gave the French a scrum in­side the All Blacks’ 22, and led to Bap­tiste Serin smash­ing over and giv­ing the vis­i­tors an early lead. Sur­prise, sur­prise. The good McKen­zie was back late in the first half, when the South­lander bolted onto a flat Aaron Smith pass and soared over the line to en­sure the All Blacks took a 21-14 lead into the sheds.

Sure, Ir­ish ref­eree John Lacey de­serves an as­sist for im­ped­ing GETTY IMAGES the French de­fen­sive line, but you won’t find McKen­zie com­plain­ing.

Nor should he. He touched down twice, had a flaw­less night goal-kick­ing, and fin­ished with 24 points to his name.

He was cer­tainly helped by the fact the All Blacks got on top of the French in the sec­ond half, but sterner tests loom.

Be­fore the test match, Hansen was con­fi­dent Mcken­zie would put in a ‘‘pretty good’’ per­for­mance, and that’s prob­a­bly the best way to de­scribe it.

Pretty good, but does he war­rant a spot in the team as a backup first-five over Mo’unga?

Un­til we get a proper look at the Cantabrian (he played the last 11 min­utes last night) at this level, plenty of ques­tions, in­clud­ing some around Bar­rett, re­main around the first-five po­si­tion.

The All Blacks kick off the Rugby Cham­pi­onship with a Bledis­loe Cup show­down against the Wal­la­bies in Syd­ney on Au­gust 18, fol­lowed by a home match against the Aus­tralians at Eden Park the fol­low­ing week.

Pro­vided Bar­rett’s fit, he will start in Syd­ney, like it or not.

Un­til then, ex­pect the Bar­rett, McKen­zie and Mo’unga fans to keep barking when Super Rugby re­sumes next week­end.

Sonny-Bill Wil­liams takes on the French de­fence last night.

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