It’s the Number 10 Test Run

There is a game being played in New Zealand, which has a key subplot. While being primarily, a delicious local derby match-up, there is one other aspect in play on Saturday night in Christchurch – it’s the Number 10 test run.

Two players will be foremost in the minds of All Black aficionados. They will be familiar with the subplot: after the back-up number 10 resigned his place, two key players will be looking to impress. Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie. The ‘rough and the smooth’ and several of the men who will want to become the new back-up number 10 by June.

It’s the Number 10 Test Run

It’s a big match, no doubting that. The Crusaders v Chiefs always is.┬áIt’s Super Rugby and this local derby has much more on the line for two young men. The chance to secure the back-up role for the All Blacks.

It’s the Number 10 Test Run, and it will be played out across Super Rugby 2018 for Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie, but yet neither can let that fact get in the way of their core tasks. Leading, and directing two of the best teams in all domestic rugby competitions.

The champion Crusaders enter this season with a comprehensive side. Hardly missing a beat from the 2017 model, only Joe Moody is the missing component that has them a ‘sure bet’ for the finals series. But under enormous pressure in 2018, the rough diamond that is Richie Mo’unga must sparkle even brighter than he did last year.

Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders kisses the Super Rugby Trophy during a parade on Saturday night in Johannesburg. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Up against them is the two-time champion Chiefs team. But one which has been reduced in value, with the loss of their formidable axis; Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Missing these men, will make it that much harder. Add in a new head coach, and the Colin Cooper headed franchise might find it a tough test.

Damian McKenzie Playing a Leading Role

If either player is under the torch, the heat is ferocious for Damian McKenzie. While not publicly saying so, the Southland native will have his work cut out in 2018. A smooth running back, more known for his positional influence from the fullback place. He is now thrust forward into the number 10 jersey, to play a leading role.

Not a new position entirely, as McKenzie has played much of his provincial rugby at first-five. But Waikato have never looked convincing with him in the driving role. While not a reflection on McKenzie’s input–more so that he has not asserted himself consistently. This weekend [and this season] it his ability to absorb this number 10 test run, which will be an example of whether he is equipped to be used away from his proven place (fullback) within the All Blacks.

Secondary to this fact, Jordie Barrett is hoping to return to his terrific form. The multi-skilled Hurricanes player will be eyeing a place in the All Blacks backline–if McKenzie performs well, he could be utilized in a way to accommodate both players. Play badly, or be outperformed by Mo’unga, and the Chiefs player could be left-out completely.

It is possibly it is too early to tell if he will pass this ‘test’. While an smooth operator (fans enjoy watching his pre-kick facials) it is now more so how instrumental he can be, that will count. Where fans have seen him inject himself into the attack, he must now smoothly operate the backline. Provide others with quality ball, working with Brad Weber and Charlie Ngatai, to demonstrate his overall qualities.

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs makes a break during the round 17 Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Brumbies at Waikato Stadium on July 15, 2017 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Capable players need to ‘Step up’

Many believe he is capable, albeit in his small stature. McKenzie is a resolute defender and by all accounts has a strong voice in the team. But, how quickly can he show these attributes? Maybe too early to judge after Week Two, as the All Blacks respect that it is not an overnight test run, but Crusaders v Chiefs is one hell of a place to jump into the saddle.

Like Steve Hansen has stated ‘Both men need time in the saddle’.

Opposing him, he will find a man who is rounding off the ‘rough edges’ of his game. The 23 year old Cantabrian had a momentous 2017. It was the encapsulation of being thrust into the spotlight. And enjoying it too!

Canterbury Crusaders’ Richie Mo’unga sets up a conversion kick during their Super Rugby semi-final match between the Canterbury Crusaders and Waikato Chiefs. (Photo credit MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

Richie Mo’unga has also been an impact in the number 15 jersey, in fact playing that role often while Dan Carter directed the Crusaders in 2015. He competed with Tom Taylor and Colin Slade for a spell as understudy, until those men chose offshore contracts. In such a competitive environment, the young pivot was solid, if not unspectacular.

That was until he became the Canterbury number 10. From there, he was given opportunities by [then coach] Scott Robertson, and over the last 24 months has developed in that position. His place kicking, ability to read and understand defence and attack, gives Mo’unga a slight edge over McKenzie.

From a constant place, he has demonstrated both an understanding of playing spectacularly–the most elusive running first-five in 2018–and also the defensive role needed, with the rush defence of today. He is a tall player, can make tackles and is a good communicator; sometimes, the best indicator of the player who can assert themselves. A player who looks ready to ‘step up’.

All Black Coach First-Five Markers

With head coach Steve Hansen now assuming that both men have the credentials, he is aware that it’s the Number 10 test run for both. Focused on those two, as well canvassing others who can also demonstrate those skills: Bryn Gatland, Stephen Perofeta, Ihaia West, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Marty McKenzie and Mitchell Hunt.

Public comments on the two protagonists in question, have shown he likes what he see’s. In October he spoke of Richie Mo’unga; “He’s young, still in the infancy of his career and led the Crusaders well during the Super competition,” Hansen told 1News Sport. “He’s got a kicking game when he needs to kick, he can run, his passing game is okay.

“He’s got the fundamentals of a good five-eighth.”

Hansen, the former Canterbury and Crusaders coach, has seen a lot of Mo’unga. Since his school days, developing along the ‘red and black’ channels, Hansen may already have the evidence he needs. Meet the same standards, or even go one gear higher, and Richie could add to his one game as a midweek All Black in 2018.

Hansen More Familiar with McKenzie

But Hansen is more familiar with Damian McKenzie. Having coached him since his debut in 2016. The Under 20 player’s form could not be ignored, although that was primarily at fullback. Hansen has spoken of him being a first-five, often selecting him as the third choice–McKenzie came off the bench in Brisbane, in a losing effort [unfortunately] but he got time in the saddle which gives the Chiefs player the ‘inside running’.

Head coach Steve Hansen of the All Blacks talks to Damian McKenzie after winning the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South African Springboks at QBE Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“Coops (Maori All Blacks and current Chiefs coach Colin Cooper) has worked in very closely with us, he understands where we think Damian’s long term future is”, Hansen told media back in June 2017.

“We have said publicly that we’d like him to play 10.”

Now Hansen can sit in the stands at AMI Stadium, Christchurch, and judge for himself. ‘Is McKenzie the number 10 they assume he is?’ The public will make their own appraisal too. Some will be provincial, others will be focused on core skills base. Kicking, passing and choosing the best options. If both men do this, then the competition will run all the way through til June.

But in saying that, the winner will certainly be the rugby fan. Each of these players will embrace and enjoy the fact that it’s the Number 10 test run. And the reward is a shining role in the World Champion All Blacks squad.

 

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