New Zealand fullback Ben Smith has very good reason to be worried about his place in the All Blacks starting XV given the undeniable form of Waikato Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie.
Highlanders fullback Smith has been one of the most dependable and reliable players in New Zealand rugby over the last number of years but it’s hard to imagine he is sitting comfortable given the breakout season of the highly touted McKenzie.
Smith, who is a World Cup winner, a Super Rugby champion and a consummate professional, is now in grave danger of losing his place in the All Blacks side just months after usurping Crusaders utility Israel Dagg as New Zealand’s first choice fullback.
The 29-year-old was exceptional for the All Blacks during last year’s Rugby World Cup and while he has managed to maintain that strong form during this season’s Super Rugby championship, he simply pales in comparison to the Chiefs 20-year old star Damian McKenzie.
McKenzie, who is a natural fly-half, has had an unbelievable start to his sophomore Super Rugby campaign and leads the competition in points, as well as all fullbacks in metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
Ben Smith v Damian McKenzie through six games of Super Rugby 2016. McKenzie will give Hansen a lot to think about. pic.twitter.com/UC2HVvbCfg
— Jack O'Toole (@jackjotoole) April 2, 2016
The Southland native has been a revelation this season for the Super Rugby leading Chiefs, and is among the competition leaders in nearly every notable attacking statistic. The New Zealand U20’s star has proven to be a consistent performer at both first receiver and at the back for Dave Rennie’s side, but hints that he may make a permanent move to fullback given his success there this season at club level.
“I’m really enjoying my time at 15,” McKenzie told the Bay Of Plenty Times.
“[Fly-Half] has always been my No 1 position but, at the moment, I’m really enjoying my time at 15, and that might be where I stay”.
“I’ve been lucky enough to score a few meat pies and get my hands on the ball a lot but I think that’s just the game plan we play; it allows me to do that and I’m really enjoying my time back there.”
McKenzie made his Super Rugby debut during last year’s season opener against the Blues, as a stand in ten for a rested Aaron Cruden.
Cruden would eventually return as the Chiefs first choice pivot before picking up an ACL injury against the Crusaders in Round 10 that would prematurely end his season.
The All Black’s absence gifted McKenzie a more prominent role at outhalf but since the star pivot’s return, McKenzie has made the successful switch to fullback and it looks like a move that has benefited both players.
“I think it’s going quite well so far,” McKenzie says of the pair’s on-field partnership. “Our game plan allows us to both get into first receiver and jump around a bit so I think it’s going well. And it’s awesome to learn off a guy like Cruds. He’s world class.”
Both Cruden and McKenzie could replicate their provincial partnership at international level given the retirement of All Black great Dan Carter following last year’s World Cup.
Carter has been New Zealand’s first-choice fly-half for well over a decade now and his absence has created a hole in the side that Cruden is expected to fill.
The former World Junior Player Of The Year is the favourite to succeed Carter as the All Blacks first five but the question remains will McKenzie join him in the starting XV?
Many New Zealand fans and pundits would like to see it happen and the man himself is rather coy about his chances of donning the silver and black.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” added McKenzie.
“If that was to be the case, that would be pretty awesome, but we’ll just wait and see.”
Fans and coaches may get a better idea of who might emerge as the front-runner for the position when the Chiefs take on the Highlanders in Round 11, but for now it appears as if McKenzie has at the very least given All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen some serious food for thought.
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