All Blacks star Mo'unga faces career-defining season
OPINION: When Richie Mo’unga helped guide the Crusaders to their third Super Rugby title on the trot in 2019, Mo’unga Mania hit its peak.
At that point in time, Mo’unga had spent just one full season with the All Blacks, having first joined the squad on the 2017 end of year tour.
Mo’unga made his Test debut in the final quarter of the All Blacks’ 49-14 win over France in June 2018 but was very much the third-choice flyhalf behind Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie.
In match-day squads, Mo’unga typically found himself riding the pine with Barrett starting at 10 and McKenzie operating from fullback.
That wasn’t enough for the rabid Mo’unga fans (mainly out of Crusaders country), who wanted their Super Rugby-winning pivot guiding the All Blacks ship from kick-off.
There was a solid argument behind handing Mo’unga the reins. Of the three options, the Cantabrian was arguably the most natural flyhalf and arguably better at controlling a game than either Barrett or McKenzie.
Still, most of that conjecture was based on how Mo’unga had performed at the Crusaders, where he was happily perched behind the best pack in the competition.
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All Blacks coach Steve Hansen did his best to temper expectations and bring everyone back down to Earth.
“He’s playing behind the Rolls Royce pack,” Hansen said of Mo’unga ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby final.
“He’s playing the way we’re expecting him to play behind a pack like that.”
That did little to quieten the noise coming out of Christchurch, however.
With the All Blacks attack not quite fizzing in 2018, the Mo’unga fans were out in full voice suggesting that the problem was at 10.
Their wish was granted last year when McKenzie went down injured part-way through Super Rugby, ending his season.
With the All Blacks coaches having a preference towards operating with a dual-playmaker model, Mo’unga was thrust into the starting team at first five with Barrett shifting back to 15 for New Zealand’s first big Test of the year, against South Africa.
Before taking the field against the Springboks, Mo’unga had just two Test starts under his belt – against Argentina and Japan, two sides that have never beaten New Zealand.
The All Blacks’ game against the Springboks ended with the two rivals sharing the spoils, 16-all. Two weeks later, the All Blacks suffered a record defeat at the hands of the Wallabies.
It wasn’t exactly the start to Mo’unga’s international career that he would have wanted – but he was hardly to blame for either of the lacklustre NZ performances and went on to have a satisfactory, if not excellent year. For a rookie flyhalf, that’s not all too bad.
That being said, it would be hard to argue that Mo’unga helped unlock the All Blacks attack in the way that many of his fans suggested he would.
For all that New Zealand gained from having Mo’unga running the cutter, they lost just as much from shifting Barrett to fullback and operating without the pocket rocket McKenzie.
What should be a bigger concern surrounding Mo’unga, however, is the playmaker’s defence.
The first five channel is naturally a major source of attack for opposing defences – it’s one man away from the ruck and an easy target for a hard-running forward. Unsurprisingly, Mo’unga has copped his fair share of hits on defence over the last three years.
At 1.75 metres tall, Mo’unga is one of the smallest 10s doing the rounds in Super Rugby. He’s also one of the least successful tacklers.
In 2019, Mo’unga made just 68% of his tackles throughout Super Rugby. That’s not the worst stat out there, but for a player that’s hailed as one of the key cogs in the Crusaders machine, it’s far from ideal.
With some of the fiercest defenders in New Zealand around him, as well as reliable sweepers in the form of Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall, Mo’unga’s frailties on defence haven’t been an Achilles Heel for the Crusaders – but that could change this year thanks to the significant turnover in the forwards.
It also became more of a prevalent issue for the All Blacks, where the (mostly same) forwards aren’t quite as ferocious on a global scale and Aaron Smith is tasked with the key sweeper role.
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For all his obvious strengths, Smith is by no means a fantastic defender. He’s got the pace to make a nuisance of himself, but he’s not the man you’d want to be relying on to bring down a rampaging tight forward who’s already pierced the first line of defence.
Therein lies a major problem. With the 1.87 metre Barrett at first receiver – a man who rarely receives the credit he deserves for his defensive capabilities – there’s a lot more resolve in the All Blacks’ line. It’s for this reason why Barrett often defended at 10 last year, particularly off set-piece, even when wearing the 15 jersey.
Of course, even when not defending at 10, you still receive your fair share of traffic. While there were plenty of aspects of the All Blacks’ performance against England in last year’s World Cup semi-final that were underwhelming, it was Mo’unga who missed the tackle on Elliot Daly that gave England the field position they needed to score their only try of the game.
With the likes of Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock all absent from the Crusaders this year, Mo’unga’s defence may well come under more scrutiny.
The other factor, of course, is the return of Damian McKenzie from injury.
McKenzie could return for the Chiefs in their first match of the year, against the Blues on January 31.
Hansen persisted with the Barrett/McKenzie combination because it allowed Barrett to steer the ship from 10 while McKenzie surveyed the play and was able to exploit chinks in the opposition’s armour.
It was McKenzie who played out of skin to give New Zealand a shot against a dominant England side at the end of 2018 and the All Blacks could have benefitted from the Chief’s fleet-footedness and eye for a gap at the tail-end of the Rugby World Cup.
A new top dog in charge, with Ian Foster taking over from Hansen, could lead to changes in the composition of the New Zealand backline, but Barrett and McKenzie offer the ability to completely break a game open – which has become an invaluable attribute, given how tight defences are at present.
One way or another, Richie Mo’unga is set for a potentially career-defining season. If he can show that he can ignite a backline from 10, even without the best forward pack in the business, then perhaps his starting berth in the All Blacks will be safe come July. If it’s McKenzie who again takes the world by storm upon his return from injury, then Mo’unga may find himself playing second fiddle.
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass