Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: No room for McKenzie in my All Blacks team

Add a comment
Damian McKenzie's build and skills are reminiscent of Mac Herewini. Photo / Photosport
Damian McKenzie's build and skills are reminiscent of Mac Herewini. Photo / Photosport

There's a big swell of anticipation among fans that Chiefs pocket rocket Damian McKenzie will be in the All Blacks squad for the series against Wales next month.

Could be right, too. The little bloke with the flying feet and the goalkicking grin has been the single most dynamic player in Super Rugby this season. I watch the Chiefs just to see him, a fantail whose darts and dips make the bigger men look like kereru who've had too many kahikatea berries.

I haven't seen such a charismatic small player since Mac Herewini. He was mostly renowned for his pinpoint kicking and territorial nous with the All Blacks and Auckland but, when he decided to dance, he made Michael Jackson look like an Easter Island statue.

Admittedly, I saw Herewini when I was a boy. Those recollections tend to be more romantic.

McKenzie, who weighs about as much as a wet teabag, has to contend with a much faster game, opponents and less time than Herewini did.

Will McKenzie be an All Black? Yes. Against Wales? I believe not. He may not be quite ready. The end-of-year tour looks a better bet, as all this watching of the Chiefs has left two impressions.

McKenzie has a little way to go in his defensive game. A lot has been made of his try-saving tackle on cathedral-sized Crusaders wing Nemani Nadolo, but he has fallen off other tackles.

Opponents are starting to work him out. Most have toned down the kicking game to the Chiefs' back three and muscle up on him quickly when he has the ball. At top level, at fullback, his size means he has to go trampoline-high to get the ball -- which he does brilliantly but not always successfully.

Neither reason is enough to keep him out of the All Blacks long-term. Another small man, Aaron Cruden, had similar deficiencies in his defensive game and he tidied them up well.

Most McKenzie fans see him as a natural replacement for World Cup will-o-the-wisp Nehe Milner-Skudder. They are similar players, with McKenzie perhaps having the edge in pace. He can also play first five-eighths, wing or fullback and has been the best New Zealand goalkicker on show.

There is also the issue of squeezing in the All Blacks door ahead of players in whom the coaches have confidence.

There's this world-class fullback called Israel Dagg who has been exhibiting signs of returning to his best. He's still only 27.

It's dollars to doughnuts Cruden will be the No10. There was an opening on the wing but Waisake Naholo might have closed that door; many thought the best selection was moving Ben Smith there and McKenzie into fullback.

However, there's also a world-class fullback called Israel Dagg exhibiting signs of returning to his best. Still only 27, Dagg's return may be of more benefit to the All Blacks selectors than injecting McKenzie at this point.

Many also think McKenzie might be best off the bench. But what about Beauden Barrett? He's also had a fine season and has proven credentials in - oh, I don't know ... the World Cup final - covering 10 and 15.

The other interesting All Blacks selections may be at loose forward and midfield. The selectors may feel it's time for someone other than Jerome Kaino to have consistent time in the No6 jersey. The Highlanders' Elliot Dixon and the Hurricanes' Brad Shields have claims, but my money's on Steven Luatua. He can play 6, 8 or lock, is a proven lineout option (as Richie McCaw was) and is looking like the player he was when he got into the All Blacks the first time.

Sam Cane will be openside flanker but who will be his back-up? Matt Todd has benefited from the Crusaders' good Super Rugby campaign but this could be the time, given he has surrendered his Olympic sevens hopes, for Ardie Savea. He has more to learn than Todd has about ball-pilfering but Wales seem a good opportunity to try him at the next level.

In the midfield, it seems certain the selectors will go for Ryan Crotty at second-five. Replacing Conrad Smith's unparalleled distribution, ability to read a game and defensive nous at centre is one of their biggest headaches. While Crotty is usually a 12 rather than a 13, Malakai Fekitoa's positioning at 12 against the Chiefs last night suggests a solution replicating the pairing of the free-running Ma'a Nonu and the strategic Smith.

Charlie Ngatai may not make the starting selection, although I'd expect him in the 23. He is too good an attacker and distributor and has a fine kicking game.

• Possible All Blacks to play Wales: Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (c), Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg. Bench: Codie Taylor, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Charlie Ngatai.

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 30 Sep 2016 16:32:48 Processing Time: 617ms