Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Damian McKenzie in doubt for Rugby Championship

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs runs the ball during the round 11 Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders on May 7, 2016 in Hamilton. Photo / Getty Images.
Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs runs the ball during the round 11 Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Highlanders on May 7, 2016 in Hamilton. Photo / Getty Images.

He sneaked into the All Blacks squad for the June internationals but Damian McKenzie might be squeezed out for the Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks will name their 32-man Rugby Championship squad on Monday and McKenzie, possibly along with Seta Tamanivalu, might be two casualties from June.

Should he miss out, it will be a relatively harsh blow for McKenzie who set the early rounds of Super Rugby alight with his dynamic running and lack of inhibition. He was picked for the June series, more with a view to give the All Blacks coaches the opportunity to refine some of his rough edges and to get him used to the behind-the-scenes demands of international rugby.

While he didn't play a test, he's been a different player since he returned to Super Rugby: more patient and accurate while not stifling his natural tendencies. Ideally, the All Blacks would like to keep him with them to continue his development and to possibly give him game time.

But the All Blacks will run with three halfbacks for the Rugby Championship - they only selected two for the June window - and that leaves one less place to accommodate the rest of the backs. McKenzie is the most likely sacrifice the selectors will have to make to carry three specialist No 9s.

The other possibilities would be to scale back from five props to four - but that's high risk if there is a late injury at a foreign venue and therefore unlikely. Or, they could, as they did at the World Cup, run with three locks instead of the standard four.

Again, though, the reward of doing that doesn't obviously outweigh the risk so it's an unlikely option, too, which is why Tamanivalu is a prospect to be cut.

The returning Sonny Bill Williams will be named in place of the still injured Charlie Ngatai and it would be a surprise if George Moala was not retained after his impressive performance at centre in the third test against against Wales.

Moala's direct running, strong defence and greater certainty about his role push him ahead of Tamanivalu who was impressive with ball in hand at times during the series, but a little lost on defence and with the pace of the game.

The balance and the make-up of the midfield remains the greatest unknown ahead of the All Blacks next encounter against Australia on August 20, but between Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa and Moala, they should be able to find the right combination in Sydney.
Williams is likely to be available for the return test in Wellington the following week.

Julian Savea, despite his continued difficulties finding his form and his recent demotion to the Hurricanes' bench, is expected to hold his place, with the All Blacks coaching staff still of the view he's not so far away from bursting into life and playing the sort of football for which he is renowned.

Savea, while he hasn't played as much rugby as he would have liked, is in the best physical shape of his career and there is confidence that if the ball can be sent his way, he can build his confidence and transform his season.

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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