All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie has been listed to start at first five-eighth for the Chiefs in Saturday’s game of three halves against the Crusaders and the Blues in Cambridge.
The Chiefs have welcomed back their All Blacks for the pre-season fixture, including national captain Sam Cane, Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown and Tupou Vaa’i, and each can play up to 40 minutes at Hautapu’s Memorial Park.
McKenzie has been named at 10 for the second half against the Blues, an indication perhaps that new coach Clayton McMillan is thinking about returning him there after switching to fullback permanently in 2019.
The 25-year-old last started at first-five in Super Rugby in Colin Cooper’s last season in charge when the Chiefs slumped to four consecutive losses in a dreadful start, but his move to fullback led to a return to form for the player and the team.
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McKenzie suffered a serious knee injury in April 2019 and was ruled out of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, only returning for the Chiefs last year when he started at fullback under Warren Gatland and missed just two matches because of injury or being rested.
The Chiefs lost all eight matches in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa once the game resumed after its hiatus because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the 27-test All Black struggled with his form. He hardly featured for the All Blacks last season, too, making just one start at fullback and three appearances off the bench.
McMillan has All Blacks such as McKenzie available for the first time, and while their final pre-season outing is primarily a chance to experiment with combinations and improve match fitness and readiness, naming the dynamic Southlander at No 10 is an interesting move nonetheless.
The Chiefs have lost centurion Aaron Cruden’s class and their remaining first-fives, Kaleb Trask and new recruits Bryn Gatland and Rivez Reihana, are not established at Super Rugby level.
McKenzie will partner All Blacks halfback Brad Weber in the halves and Lienert-Brown starts at centre against the Blues, forming an experienced trio who have played much of their rugby together with Waikato and the Chiefs.
It’s also another indication of the Chiefs’ wish to see McKenzie at first-five alongside team-mates who are almost certain to be starting when they kick off against the Highlanders in Hamilton on March 5.
First, Cane and Vaa’i return at openside flanker and lock respectively in the first half against the Crusaders, who will also be unleashing their All Blacks, as will the Blues.
The Chiefs will then get a break while the Crusaders and Blues contest their half and finish against the Blues when McKenzie, Weber and Lienert-Brown will take the field.
The game of three halves in Cambridge was hastily arranged this week because of the changing Covid-19 alert levels in Auckland affecting the Blues and the Crusaders’ pre-season clash at Eden Park.
The fixture will not be open to the public and take place under level 2 protocols.
Last Saturday, the Chiefs recorded narrow wins over the Blues and the Hurricanes in a game of three halves in Upper Hutt.
“While we enjoyed a couple of wins in Upper Hutt, the margins between winning and losing are small,” McMillan said in a statement.
“We were lucky to be on the right side of a few key moments last week and will need to take a step forward in our accuracy this Saturday.
“Our physical intent was great but that will need to go up a notch to be truly competitive against quality opposition like the Blues and Crusaders. I have enjoyed the re-integration of our All Blacks over the last few weeks and I’m looking forward to the influence they will have in our team this weekend.”
AT A GLANCE
What: Chiefs vs Crusaders and Blues
Where, when: Memorial Park, Cambridge, Saturday at 12:05pm
Chiefs vs Crusaders: Rivez Reihana, Shaun Stevenson, Sean Wainui, Alex Nankivell, Jonah Lowe, Bryn Gatland, Xavier Roe; Kaylum Boshier, Sam Cane, Simon Parker, Stan van den Hoven, Tupou Vaa’i, Sione Mafileo, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Sekope Lopeti-Moli, Ollie Norris, Joe Apikotoa, Viliami Taulani, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Quinn Tupaea, Gideon Wrampling, Lisati Milo-Harris.
Chiefs vs Blues: Chase Tiatia, Bailyn Sullivan, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rameka Poihipi, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Damian McKenzie, Brad Weber; Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Samipeni Finau, Josh Lord, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Joshua Iosefa-Scott, Bradley Slater, Reuben O’Neill. Reserves: Sekope Lopeti-Moli, Nathan Harris, Ollie Norris, Joe Apikotoa, Viliami Taulani, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Quinn Tupaea, Gideon Wrampling, Lisati Milo-Harris.