Chiefs' Conundrum: What to do with the mercurial McKenzie?
OPINION: It’s the news every Chiefs fan has been hoping for: Damian McKenzie will be fit for the opening match of the Super Rugby season.
Chiefs assistant coach Tabai Matson has confirmed that McKenzie, who ruptured his ACL in April, is on track to make a return on the 31st of January against the Blues.
It was against the same team earlier this year that McKenzie’s season came to an end, curtailing any chances the pocket rocket had of taking the field for the All Blacks at the World Cup.
“He’s running and will be doing tackling all the way through December, and will be available at the start,” Matson told Radio Sport’s Jim Kayes this week.
“It’s exciting to have a world-class player of that calibre back in the mix for sure. It’s great news for him and for us and for New Zealand Rugby.
There’s no doubt that the Chiefs will be pleased to have one of the world’s most exciting players back in the fold after they sorely missed his spark this year.
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“He’s been one of our best for a long time. Nearly 80 games of Super Rugby and [he’s only 24],” said Matson. “It’s frightening that he’s got a lot more to give.”
The Chiefs finished their 2019 season with a 7 win, 1 draw, 7 loss tally. It was enough to sneak into the quarter-finals, but that says more about the competition structure than it does about the performance of the Chiefs.
Still, to come back from a horror four-loss start to the season and then almost pip the eventual finalists Jaguares at home in a quarter-final is not a tragic result. Factor in that Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and McKenzie were absent for the majority of the season and it’s not hard to see why the Chiefs struggled.
Even with McKenzie on hand at the start of 2019, however, the Chiefs weren’t putting the best performances on the park.
McKenzie, who spent the majority of his playing time over his first four seasons of Super Rugby at fullback, was given the 10 jersey for the early stages of 2019.
The diminutive playmaker did the best with what he had, but he didn’t exactly shine out at first five. He wasn’t bad, per se, but it was difficult for him to have as big an impact as he had in the past without having the freedom to roam from fullback.
By the time McKenzie had been struck down by injury, he had already been moved to the back of the park with the likes of older brother Marty and former Melbourne Rebel Jack Debreczeni coming in at 10.
Neither of the latter pairing especially impressed and both have found themselves without Super Rugby contracts for 2020.
A return to the flyhalf role doesn’t appear to be on the cards for McKenzie for the upcoming season, however.
“I’ve come to the point where I enjoy 15 a lot more,” McKenzie revealed during his rehabilitation. “Ten’s good fun but you’re limited especially around attacking with a bit more freedom and space to 15. That’s something I just like doing – running around like a headless chook trying to find some space.
One of the big factors which could influence where McKenzie plays his rugby next year will be the return of Aaron Cruden to the Chiefs.
Cruden first joined the side in 2012 and was at the helm for both the 2012 and 2013 title runs. He departed overseas at the end of the 2017 season but now finds himself having one more crack with the Chiefs before heading to Japan later in the year.
“I’m pretty keen, for next year, now to nail a spot at 15 and get some good game time there then, if I have to, play 10. I’ve come to the conclusion where it’s more 15-10 than 10-15.”
Enter, Tiaan Falcon and Kaleb Trask.
22-year-old Falcon, who was a member of the 2017 New Zealand Under 20 side, will enter his third season with the Chiefs in 2020. The Hawke’s Bay product debuted against the Blues in the third round of the 2018 season but managed just three caps thanks to injuries and the presence of other experienced players in the squad.
Still, when the Chiefs named their squad for 2020, McKenzie was listed amongst the inside backs – but that shouldn’t be read into too much.
Cruden is a first five of the highest calibre and will bring a steady hand to the 10 jersey – but it’s only a short-term fix.
New head coach Warren Gatland will no doubt be counting on Cruden – as well as former five-eighth and assistant coach David Hill – to tutor the young 10s on the Chiefs books who will need to be ready to take over from Cruden in 2021.
McKenzie may well be an option, but it seems increasingly likely that one of the other first five options in the squad will be groomed as Cruden’s heir apparent.
The 2019 Super Rugby season was a write-off for Falcon, who ruptured his Achilles tendon before the season kicked off. Falcon made a return for Hawke’s Bay at the end of the provincial season and should be a contender to back up Cruden when the upcoming season kicks off.
Trask, at just 20 years old, is another option.
Like Falcon, Trask honed his trade for the Under 20 side and has shown plenty of promise for the Bay of Plenty. With just one full season of provincial rugby under his belt, Trask is still untested – but the fact that he was named MVP of the New Zealand Under 19 tournament in 2018 indicates that he could be an excellent option for the Chiefs in the future.
Both players will likely be called upon by the Chiefs next year, especially if their injury situation is even half as bad as it was in 2019.
Both McKenzie brothers, Debreczeni and Falcon were all unavailable for the opening round of the competition which saw Orbyn Leger whistled into the squad to play first five. Chiefs stalwart Stephen Donald also joined the team.
Leger, who is contracted for 2020, was not asked to take kicks at goal with Shaun Stevenson and Brad Weber instead filling in. The Chiefs lost that opening fixture by a mere three points but left a number of points on the park thanks to the wayward goalkicking.
That scenario will hopefully not arise again next year.
With a number of respected and promising first five options in the Chiefs squad for 2020, Damian McKenzie will likely have the luxury of settling into his favoured fullback position. Aaron Cruden’s return should see the Chiefs once again operate with experienced, dangerous threats all across the park.
Expect to see few kicks into the Chiefs’ backfield from opposition teams next year, lest McKenzie decides to run the ball back.
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass