Damian McKenzie outguns Beauden Barrett, stakes claim in All Blacks No 10 battle


ANALYSIS: It took all of 22 seconds for Damian McKenzie to ensure Ian Foster hadn’t slipped into a Saturday night slumber at FMG Stadium Waikato.

Heck, the All Blacks coach may well not have even taken his seat before the Chiefs talisman put a brilliantly weighted grubber through for Emoni Narawa to sensationally open the scoring in his side’s exhilarating Super Rugby Pacific win against the Blues in Hamilton.

Some 80 or so minutes later, and Foster must not only have been checking he still had McKenzie’s digits in his phone, but pondering the paracetamol stocks in his bathroom cupboard.

The supplies sure may have run low over the last few months for the beleaguered national team mentor, but now comes yet another headache for him to combat in his last hurrah at the helm – the all-important No 10 position.

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Because, after missing last year’s test programme when spending a season in Japan, McKenzie must surely now be entering the conversation as starting first-five for the All Blacks at this year’s World Cup.

After outplaying Richie Mo’unga in the opening-round win in Christchurch, the 40-test dynamo has now also comfortably outgunned Beauden Barrett, after expertly guiding the Chiefs to a sixth win on the trot in this superb start to the season.

On a wet Hamilton night – conditions not exactly designed for the McKenzie’s x-factor running game – the 27-year-old proved what Barrett, and many others, have not, and that is returning from an OE an improved player.

With game management having always been the question mark for the twinkle-toed livewire, despite his history through the ranks as a No 10, the 101-game Chiefs playmaker showed he indeed has the nous, calm head, and ability to produce on the big stage when presented with a pressure-cooker-type game.

Having immediately brought the 15,108 crowd to their feet with his crafty opening try setup, McKenzie went on to mix a smart boot into open pasture with his silky step and speed, not to mention brilliant composure off the tee.

All this as Barrett was enduring quite the shocking start.

Having shanked one conversion low and wide, the veteran All Black then unfathomably bombed a try soon later by trodding on the dead-ball-line. Was the missed kick still on his mind? Most likely, and the 31-year-old got too greedy, under the applaudable pressure of Tupou Vaa’i at his ankles.

That brain explosion still surely on his mind, Barrett proceeded to then send another stinker off the tee when trying to convert from the opposite side of the field to his earlier miss.

All the while, as if to rub it in, even, McKenzie, with that trademark grin, was nailing everything. Those four from four included a 52-metre epic for the opening points of the second half, in the 46th minute.

There were a couple of head-to-head moments where the grin would have been internal, too.

One one occasion Barrett kicked, McKenzie collected, stepped his opposite, then intelligently kicked wide openside, and forced a Stephen Perofeta knock on. On another, Barrett chipped, and wile it went past McKenzie, he didn’t panic, turned, retrieved, then seared past his rival on a great attack down the left touch.

While there was a dropout on the full, McKenzie immediately followed up the error with a huge hit on a rampaging Rieko Ioane to a force a dropped ball at the goal-line.

At 1.75m and 81kg, McKenzie’s frame has oft been a reservation for some, yet he far from shies away from the work without the ball, and in a game where his side had just 40% possession and 39% territory, he finished up with 12 tackles (for a single miss) – matching Brodie Retallick, and second-equal for the game.

There was plenty to play for in this latest instalment of the Battle of the Bombays, and McKenzie most definitely made sure he didn’t miss his chance.