Damian McKenzie returns to spark Chiefs' resurgence in Super Rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Over the last seven weeks and both through his presence and absence, flyhalf Damian McKenzie has proved he is indispensable to the Hamilton-based Chiefs as they chase a third title in Super Rugby Pacific.

The Chiefs won four of their first five matches this season with McKenzie at the helm. They then rested the All Blacks playmaker for their clash with the defending champion Crusaders and became the first team to lose to the Crusaders in 2024.

McKenzie returned Friday and led the Chiefs to a 68-10 win over Moana Pasifika, the club’s largest winning margin in Super Rugby.

The fact that in McKenzie’s absence, the Chiefs achieved a feat no other team has managed this year by losing to the Christchurch-based Crusaders highlighted the costly nature of his absence.

In his presence, the Chiefs scored 10 tries against Moana Pasifika and many were inspired by McKenzie’s raids from set pieces or broken play, his ability to offload under pressure and send players though gaps in the defense.

McKenzie converted nine tries to share the club record with Stephen Donald for most conversions in a match. He has 82 points from six games. McKenzie also showed his resilience by getting up and carrying on after a bruising tackle by Moana Pasifika's Fine Inisi.

McKenzie’s value to the Chiefs is further highlighted by the fact they have scored more than 320 points in his presence this year, conceding 93. In contrast, they have conceded more points than they have scored when he is not on the field.

The Chiefs gain more meters and beat more defenders when McKenzie is present. While he kicks more often than most playmakers in Super Rugby he also does so more effectively. His point of difference over other New Zealand playmakers remains the potency and frequency of his running game.

The question ahead of mid-year tests against England is whether new All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson also will find McKenzie indispensable. The other leading candidate for the All Blacks No. 10 jersey is currently Japan-based playmaker Beauden Barrett.

In recent seasons, Barrett has had to move to fullback or the bench to accommodate Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf. Mo’unga now also is based in Japan and is not available for the All Blacks.

In a recent interview, Barrett again indicated he would prefer to play at No. 10 for New Zealand this year, setting up a contest for the position with McKenzie.

“This time every year I say I want to play 10,” Barrett said. “That’s what the coaches also agree on and you get to the time when it comes to selection and somehow I slip back to 15 and I accept that.

“I want to be playing for the All Blacks, I want to be playing first five-eighth.”

One of the other features of round seven was the continued rise of the ACT Brumbies who beat the New South Wales Waratahs 40-16. The Brumbies now have won five matches in a row and have drawn level atop the table with the Auckland-based Blues and Wellington-based Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes had a seventh round bye and therefore have a game in hand.

The Brumbies now have won their last 12 matches against the Waratahs and clearly remain the strongest of Australia’s five teams.

In wet conditions, the Brumbies pack dominated the Waratahs who suffered when they lost Wallaby prop Angus Bell to a recurring foot injury before halftime.

Rob Valetini ran the ball strongly and flyhalf Noah Lolesio kicked four penalties and three conversions.

“They made it really tough for us, especially in these conditions and I thought they did a really good job,” Waratahs captain Jake Gordon said. “They won the territory battles and we defended really well which was really pleasing. But they put a lot of heat around our breakdowns.”


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