NZ reaction: All Blacks strip 'physically fearless but mentally fragile' Boks of No.1 ranking. Is their dignity next?
South Africa lost their world No.1 ranking to the All Blacks on Saturday night – this week they could well lose their dignity.
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.
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.
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.
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.