New Zealand Maori coach Colin Cooper has named a very powerful and skilful side to face the Lions in Rotorua on Saturday which includes a real sign of attacking intent with the selection of Damian McKenzie at fly-half.
The Maori All Black backline is potentially one of the most exciting put together in recent years. James Lowe, who usually plays at wing for the Chiefs, will insert his unpredictable attacks from fullback, while Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Scudder provide mouth-watering contrasts on the wings. Charlie Ngatai has had a slow road back from a long term concussion battle, but he is a high class midfielder, and had been tipped to be one of Ma’a Nonu’s and Conrad Smith’s long term replacements in the All Blacks. Joining him is the pacy Hurricanes midfielder Matt Proctor, who may be one to watch as the Lions worry about the threats around him. Damian McKenzie the mercurial Chiefs utility, gets his chance to steer this impressive backline from fly-half.
McKenzie has played at number 10 during for the Chiefs and for Waikato at provincial level. All Black coach Steve Hansen admitted McKenzie was a whisker away from being selected for the All Blacks test squad and that the selectors would like to see him operate in the playmaking role. With Aaron Cruden departing for Europe at the end of this season, McKenzie will have the position to himself at the Chiefs and also the spot as back up to Beauden Barrett will be up for contention. The Lions will be a step up in pressure in this position, but if McKenzie can get front foot ball form his forwards, and simply enjoy himself, his electric footwork and skills should set this backline alight. Fellow Chief and All Black Tawera Kerr Barlow is paired with McKenzie at scrum half.
In the forwards, there is a very powerful back row which includes former All Black Liam Messam and fringe All Blacks Akira Ioane and Elliot Dixon. It is an interesting mix as all three specialise at either blindside flanker or nunber 8 positions so the Maori will be without a specialist ‘fetcher’ or openside flanker. Two tall timbers from the Highlander team make up the locking combination, and the side will be captained by another Highlander who didn’t play in Tuesday’s game, hooker Ash Dixon. He is joined in the front by one test All Black Kane Hames who has an explosive running game and experienced Hurricane prop Ben May.
All in all, this is a side who would test any team in world rugby, with a backline which will be as volcanic as the region of Rotorua.
Maori All Blacks
James Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Matt Proctor, Charlie Ngatai, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Messam, Elliot Dixon, Akira Ioane, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Ben May, Ash Dixon (c), Kane Hames
Reserves: Hikawera Elliot, Chris Eves, Marcel Renata, Leighton Price, Kara Pryor, Bryn Hall, Ihaia West, Rob Thompson
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena