McKenzie makes play for first-five
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.