COMMENT

The World Cup door has been shut on Damian McKenzie but it may not necessarily remain open to the emerging group of first-fives hopeful they will now be in line to join the All Blacks in Japan.

However it may look, the All Blacks are not wedded to the belief they have to take three first-fives to the World Cup and probably won't now that McKenzie has been ruled out.

They will almost certainly bring a third first-five into their pre-World Cup tests, expose him to their systems, gameplan, way of life and give him time on the park.

Advertisement

But take him to the World Cup? That's a maybe, bordering on unlikely. The All Blacks are heading to Japan to try to make history by winning a third consecutive title and it's hard to believe they will see taking an inexperienced, unproven, unconvincing No10 as compatible with that goal.

READ MORE:
The hunt is on - who will replace Damian McKenzie in World Cup squad?
Spark reveals Rugby World Cup could cost viewers up to $90

The All Blacks coaches were set on taking Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga and Damian McKenzie but that wasn't to fulfil any selection edict – it was because they wanted all three in the squad for the experience, range of skills and versatility they brought.

Those three were the near perfect World Cup triumvirate. In the big tests at the end of last year Barrett started at No10, McKenzie at fullback and Mo'unga on the bench.

That meant that regardless of which of the two were on the field, the All Blacks had two first receivers, two kickers, two goal-kickers, two decision makers and two devastating backfield runners.

They had three players they trusted to start at first-five and three players all genuine test class in regard to their skill execution and ability.

Now that McKenzie has been ruled out, the All Blacks can't replicate what they were going to have because they don't have another player with McKenzie's experience, versatility or skill-set.

And more importantly they simply don't have a third first-five who is good enough to take to the World Cup.

That's the real issue – look around the country and there just isn't a No10 that looks ready, or even close to being ready to play test football.

And, given there are only five tests before the World Cup, there is no possibility of anyone in that emerging group proving their readiness before the squad has to be picked for Japan.

The likes of Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer at the Blues are tracking towards being ready for the 2023 tournament.

That's the same with Brett Cameron, who despite playing 20 minutes for the All Blacks in Japan last year, has shown in Super Rugby this year that he's a long way from being a test footballer.

Otere Black looks the pick of the current bunch at the moment but would the All Blacks really take him to the World Cup?

When Peroftea recovers, Black may not even regularly start for the Blues and the question that will have immediately come to mind for the All Blacks selectors in the wake of McKenzie's injury is do they really need a third first-five?

There's always going to be a tendency to look at what happened in 2011 to answer that question.

The All Blacks learned in the most dramatic way that first-five is a red flag position. They lost three No10s in three weeks in 2011 and as a consequence, built an extraordinary depth in the position between 2012 and 2015 to ensure they were covered in case of a similar extreme scenario.

They had six genuine options at No10 in 2015 and ended up taking Daniel Carter, Barrett and Colin Slade, with Aaron Cruden missing out due to injury and Lima Sopoaga and Tom Taylor on-call should injury strike.

But while they took three No10s, Slade's only involvement in the tournament was one start against Namibia at fullback.

Maybe the All Blacks were lucky to get through that tournament without incurring any kind of injury to their first-fives but they are now likely to be willing to roll the dice and see if they can get through another World Cup without mishap to their two play-makers.

Black, should they take him to Japan, is not going to start and he's not going to be on the bench for any of the big games.

It will be Barrett and Mo'unga in the match day 23 for the knock out games and opener against South Africa and they can find a way to navigate the tests against Canada, Italy and Namibia without burning out their two specialist No10s.

That might require a calculated risk – to play one of those games without a specialist No10 on the bench and if injury strikes, gamble that someone such as Jordie Barrett or TJ Perenara could slot in at first-five.

Or if that is a risk they don't want to take, Mo'unga can start against Namibia – a game which comes just four days after the test against Canada – and Barrett can be on the bench.

While the coaches would rather not have Barrett and Mo'unga involved in every game, they would most likely be prepared to accept that is what they will have to do now McKenzie is injured.

And if one of Barrett or Mo'unga should be damaged then the coaches will have the option of calling up Black or whoever, knowing that they will at least have had some test experience before the World Cup.