Live wire Damian McKenzie faces his first real test as an All Blacks first-five this weekend, but is he a contender, or pretender, for Beauden Barrett's throne?
McKenzie is downright brilliant at times, downright frustrating at others. You can't doubt the mans ability; running to the line ball in hand he's unpredictable and incisive, cutting holes in defences as often as Razor Robertson cuts shapes on the sidelines. He's equally as exciting running the ball back from fullback. That is where he should stay.
I'm still not a believer in his ability to control a game at test level (though that's not to say I can't be converted). His qualities can be a double edged sword for a someone running the cutter and in my mind, Richie Mo'unga should start, with D-Mac coming off the bench.
The All Black selectors clearly disagree with me and let's be honest, they've seen far more of each player than I have, and we can safely assume they know more than I do on the subject.
The Super Rugby stats paint a pretty picture for McKenzie; in 12 games he's made 10 line breaks, scored four tries and 134 points, run 838 metres and made 52 tackle busts. In seven games Mo'unga has five line breaks, two tries, 70 points, 465 running metres and 22 tackle busts. They certainly skew in McKenzie's favour.
However, that attacking prowess comes with it's pitfalls, McKenzie has coughed up 20 turnovers, 20 handling errors and missed 19 tackles this Super season. Mo'unga has nine turnovers, seven handling errors and 14 missed tackles.
The All Blacks selectors clearly feel McKenzie's offensive attributes outweigh his error rate and it's hard to measure the importance of 'game breaking' ability, which the cheeky Chief has in spades.
However there are other factors that aren't so easy to quantify. Mo'unga is part of a Crusaders team that's won all but two games this season and sit nine points clear at the top of the standings. McKenzie's Chiefs are sixth with five losses.
How much of the Crusaders success is down to Mo'unga? He certainly gave Beauden Barrett a lesson in how to control a game in the rain as the Crusaders outclassed the Hurricanes in a wet weather clash in Christchurch. It's that ability to dictate (and the experience that comes with having been a first-five all of his Super Rugby career) that I think makes Mo'unga the better starting option, with McKenzie a brilliant impact player off the bench.
Mo'unga will take the sting out of the French forwards, turning them around with well placed kicks and directional play. He'll stay fresh and keep his eyes open for space by passing more often than running and staying clear of rucks, where McKenzie often gets trapped or isolated after making a half break. Mo'unga appears to have a deeper, more innate understanding of what's required from a backline general and what's best for the team. He's more patient and less likely to blow an opportunity with a 50-50 pass. While not in the same league as McKenzie when it comes to counter-attacking or out and out speed, the All Blacks aren't lacking in those areas, and sometimes a deft distributor is better at freeing up that talent than a hot stepping ball holder.
McKenzie though gets the first crack and with the All Blacks forwards stung into action after a tepid performance in Wellington and the roof closed in Dunedin, the Southlander should have all the ingredients to make crepe's out of the French defence. If he does, he'll go a long way to securing his place at next year's World Cup. If he doesn't, the usurpers will heap fuel on their fire, and Mo'unga will shorten his odds of taking over as Barrett's heir.