World rugby looks set to get its first glimpse at the All Blacks’ latest rugby phenomenon when Wales visit the world champions in June.
In the world of rugby, New Zealand is king. This has always been the way, going back decades. The All Blacks are the best of the best. It’s a nation where rugby is the number one sport, where the chance to wear the black jersey is regarded as the highest honour and those that do become national heroes.
This year the All Blacks are going through a period of rebuild. After securing a second consecutive World Cup title in October last, the squad lost some of the biggest names in world rugby, to retirement and ineligibility.
Richie McCaw, the All Blacks’ long-standing captain, announced his retirement from the game after some 148 international appearances. Legendary fly-half Dan Carter also left the international stage, leaving a legacy that sees him regarded as the finest no.10 ever to play the game.
Add to this the likes of Conrad Smith (retired), Ma’a Nonu (ineligible) and Sonny Bill Williams (ineligible), and it is clear that there is a huge void to fill in this fabled New Zealand squad.
However, it being New Zealand, the rugby talent machine continues to produce new talent at a terrifying rate. As alluded to already, the loss of Ma’a Nonu looks like it will be scarcely felt as the emergence of Charlie Ngatai will ensure that the All Blacks continue to have a thundering, try-scoring inside centre.
Now it has emerged that Ngatai’s Super Rugby teammate at the Chiefs, Damian McKenzie, looks set to become the long-term replacement for the ‘irreplaceable’ Carter at number 10.
McKenzie has been lighting up Super Rugby this season and along with teammate Aaron Cruden, All Black understudy to Carter, has given the Chiefs an attacking strategy that other teams just cannot handle.
While his preferred position is fly-half, or first-five-eighth as it is known in New Zealand, McKenzie has featured at full-back this season with Cruden at 10. Between them they have been the architects of many an opponents’ demise and McKenzie now leads all full-backs in the league for metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten. Not bad for a 20-year-old.
Last season saw McKenzie step into the fly-half position to deputise for Cruden when the first choice 10 was injured. In doing so his potential became apparent and this season, though at full-back, he has been given kicking duties ahead of the All Black Cruden.
With his explosive attacking and rock solid ball kicking, talk of a call-up to the All Blacks squad has been growing louder with each passing week and it appears now, with Cruden likely to take the vacant number 10 jersey, McKenzie looks set to become his understudy, a role Cruden himself filled under Carter.
At only 20, McKenzie has time on his side and will learn a great deal from his teammate. With his club partnership with Cruden and their devastating full-back/fly-half attacking plays, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen will have an intriguing attacking option off the bench.
The potential and performances this season have led the media in New Zealand to regard McKenzie as ‘Rugby’s Hottest Property’ and with six tries and 126 points in 22 games for the Chiefs so far, it is clear this is a guy who can win games.
With a summer visit from Wales looming in June, many feel it is merely a matter of time before the world gets its first introduction to the future owner of the All Blacks’ number 10 shirt.
Until then however, feast your eyes on just some of his highlights from this season. It really is something.
Video Credit: BsporTV
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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