Alex McLeod 16 April, 5:24am
Since news broke that Damian McKenzie’s ruptured ACL has ruled him out of World Cup contention, one question has continued to burn on the public’s mind: who will replace him in the All Blacks ’ squad in Japan later this year?
It’s a question that nobody really knows the answer to just yet, probably not even the All Blacks selectors themselves.
The distance between the incumbent group of first-fives – Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and McKenzie – and the rest of the playmakers in New Zealand is substantial.
However, Steve Hansen and his assistants, Ian Foster and Grant Fox, are now tasked with getting someone up to speed with just half a Super Rugby season, a condensed Rugby Championship, Bledisloe Cup and a one-off test against Tonga at their disposal.
Plenty of names have been flung around in the wake of McKenzie’s season-ending knee injury as the search for a player worthy of filling the 23-year-old’s boots ramps up.
Sad news for Chiefs and All Blacks fans with Damian McKenzie suffering an ACL rupture, ruling him out of the RWC. ?#rugbyworldcup #allblacks #nzrugby #chiefsrugby #superrugby #rugby #rugbygram
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The complexity of the search is enhanced given that McKenzie has been listed as a first-five most times he’s been named in All Blacks sides since his test debut in 2016, but the role that he predominantly plays as a fullback adds an extra dimension to the selection conundrum.
Do the selectors pick a first-five that is under-skilled at test match level but adds depth to arguably the most important position in the squad, or do they opt to pick up another outside back who will probably have more experience and ability, but will leave the All Blacks undermanned at first-five with just two clear cut options in Barrett and Mo’unga?
While there are plenty of legitimate outside back options that can be used to alleviate the loss of McKenzie, it seems difficult to envisage the All Blacks selectors running the risk of taking just two first-fives to Japan, especially given their history of injuries in that position at previous World Cups.
The possibility of either Barrett or Mo’unga burning out by the play-off stages after throwing them into the mix against Italy, Canada and Namibia surely cannot be worth it.
So, while any one of Waisake Naholo, George Bridge, Nehe Milner-Skudder, David Havili, Braydon Ennor and Will Jordan could be thrown a lifeline via McKenzie’s injury, it seems a first-five needs to be called up to preserve and correctly manage the country’s premier two playmakers.
Blues pivot Otere Black looms as the most composed and in-form first-five left in the nation behind Barrett and Mo’unga, but is he really ready for test match rugby, let alone a World Cup?
As a distributing first-five with a consistent boot and minimal running game, he’s a solid yet unspectacular option should the All Blacks be required to call upon him.
He’s made seven appearances for the Maori All Blacks, but if McKenzie hadn’t sustained this long-term injury at such an inconvenient time, that is likely where Black would have been confined to in the international arena as he lacks the x-factor value that separates Barrett, Mo’unga and McKenzie apart from the rest of the country.
Although he’s the only other first-five in New Zealand with test match experience, Brett Cameron has had limited game time at the Crusaders this year behind Mo’unga, and was shocking in his only start of the season against the Waratahs in Sydney last month.
That match showed he still has plenty of developing to undergo, which can also be said of Josh Ioane, Mitch Hunt and Damian’s older brother Marty, all of whom may come into consideration due to their positional flexibility thanks to their playing ability at fullback, just like the younger McKenzie.
Despite there being multiple options available to the All Blacks selectors, no first-five in New Zealand really stands out as a suitable replacement who could seamlessly slot into the squad if need be.
Barrett, Mo’unga and McKenzie all have aspects to their game that makes both them and the All Blacks world class at their craft, and none of the chasing pack can say they also possess such qualities.
That leads to the next question: should Hansen, Foster and Fox be looking outside of New Zealand to bolster their first-five stocks at such a time of need?
As a rugby nation that is staunchly opposed to the concept of picking foreign-based players for their national side, it is understandable why many Kiwis would be opposed to such a proposition.
As soon as the door is opened for overseas players – especially European-based ones – to be selected for the All Blacks, the floodgates will open as a mass exodus ensues, effectively making Super Rugby an under-23 development competition.
But, as was shown late last year, the All Blacks selectors aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of selecting a non-New Zealand-based player when in desperate times.
Sam Cane’s broken neck injury last October forced Hansen to call up Matt Todd from the Japanese Top League for the All Blacks’ end-of -year tour, as he wasn’t comfortable with entrusting any other openside flanker in the country aside from Ardie Savea and new cap Dalton Papali’i.
As is the case now in the first-five position, there were other viable options to fill the role at number seven through Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans (both played in the Japan test but were excluded from the European leg of the tour), James Lentjes and – had he been uninjured – Blake Gibson, but Hansen looked offshore to plug the gap left by Cane, and filled it with the Japan-based Todd.
It was a first for the All Blacks to make such a selection, and given the proximity and similar season structure Japan has with New Zealand via the Sunwolves in Super Rugby and the Top League played at the backend of the year alongside the Mitre 10 Cup, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see it happen again.
But which Japanese-based New Zealander would provide more security as a third-string first-five at a World Cup through his experience and ability than any other domestically-based player?
Look no further than Hayden Parker.
Yes, he’s an uncapped 28-year-old who was shunned by all five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises after a five-season spell with the Highlanders came to a close due to a prolonged run of injuries, but all five franchises – except for maybe the Crusaders, who have admirable depth in almost every position – would have significantly benefitted from Parker’s presence in their squads.
The same can be said for the All Blacks following McKenzie’s injury news, such is the vein of form Parker has found himself in since being picked up by the Sunwolves for the 2018 campaign.
His miraculous goal-kicking form has been the subject of much praise over the course of the past two seasons, knocking over 77 of his last 80 kicks at goal to catapult himself into the conversation as one of the greatest goal-kickers we have ever seen.
While his kicking in general play is also noteworthy thanks to the influence of long-time mentor Tony Brown, Parker’s talents aren’t confined to just his boot, as his ability to spark and dictate the Sunwolves’ infamous helter-skelter brand of rugby makes him an integral figure within the Tokyo-based squad.
If anyone needs evidence of Parker’s playmaking prowess, his sensational showing against the Reds in the Japanese capital last year exemplified all the quality he possesses.
The Kurow-born pivot scored a try, five conversions and seven penalties to accumulate 36 points in a 63-28 rout of the Queenslanders last May, becoming the highest-ever New Zealand point-scorer in a Super Rugby match and the fourth-highest in Super Rugby history.
It was a sublime display of all-round skill, and just a week later, he illustrated the ‘clutch’ facet of his game with an 85th-minute drop goal to snatch a 26-23 win against the Stormers in Hong Kong.
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These attributes have made Parker arguably the most important player in the Sunwolves squad, and once the franchise dissolves after next year’s Super Rugby campaign, the Kobe Steelers first-five can expect to receive offers worldwide for his services.
However, if Hansen is willing to tweak the eligibility laws for the second time in less than 12 months, Parker could expect an offer to return to New Zealand sooner than 2020 given his proven track record in handling the rigours and pressures cast upon him at Super Rugby level.
Obviously, the challenge of a World Cup surmounts that of anything Super Rugby could conjure up, but Parker has been on the professional scene since his ITM Cup debut in 2010, and has the experience, confidence and ability that no other New Zealand first-five currently wields.
To call upon a foreign-based player might be considered by some as the beginning of a downward spiral in the quality of New Zealand rugby, but there can surely be no harm in selecting a Kiwi still plying his trade in Super Rugby, proving his worth against all other All Blacks contenders.
The worth that Parker has proven for himself supersedes that of all other All Blacks first-five candidates in Super Rugby right now, and with a World Cup spot needing to be taken following the ill-fortune of Damian McKenzie, Parker could well be the man to offset McKenzie’s absence.
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