Having bamboozled in his half-hour at first-five in the Chiefs dramatic 35-29 Super Rugby Aotearoa win against the Hurricanes, it’s astonishing to learn coach Clayton McMillan won’t start Damian McKenzie there against the Blues at Hamilton on Saturday night.
With Beauden Barrett in Japan, crackerjack McKenzie is the only first-five in the country who can provide the razzle dazzle Crusader Richie Mo’unga does.
That showed in Wellington over the weekend when McKenzie and No 8 Luke Jacobson were inspirational in the Chiefs magnificent comeback after trailing 26-7 at halftime.
Coach McMillan liked what Bryn Gatland brought to the No 10 jersey in the first two games of the season against the Crusaders and Highlanders despite losing both. He also points out Kaleb Trask has ability,
True, but neither can produce the lightning McKenzie thrust that incorporates clever off-loads, smart dummies and a sharp sidestep and swerve.
Furthermore, replacement fullback Chase Tiatia was quick to show his attacking class with a smart 57th minute try.
Saturday’s win allowed the Chiefs to break a 11-game losing streak and give them some confidence against a giant Blues team whose bulk and indiscipline failed to tame the mighty Crusaders in Sunday’s Eden Park clash.
The Blues have power and pace but not the cohesiveness of the four-times consecutive champions with the brilliant Mo’unga amassing 28 points from a try, four conversions and five penalties.
Jack Goodhue, Codie Taylor and Sevu Reece also scored tries while Kurt Eklund 2, Blake Gibson and Hoskins Sotutu replied in kind for the Blues with Otere Black and Harry Plummer each adding a conversion.
Robust hooker Eklund looks too good to sit on the reserves bench although he needs to improve his discipline after being sidelined for a judo throw on Reece.
Turning down four easy penalties in the first quarter in attempting but failing to score tries, the Blues paid the price on the few occasions the Crusaders moved onto attack.
Their scrum and lineout remained strong, their driving maul, with players tightly bound, was superior and hooker Taylor was dynamic.
Tight defence stifled the much-anticipated back attack and limited chances for the likes of Caleb Clarke and opposing winger Reece. However the fast Rieko Ioane looked a more dangerous centre than Jack Goodhue despite receiving a ragged service.
Brother Akira Ioane also had his moments, as did No 8 Sotutu who also excelled at the lineout. But for smarts, patience and discipline, the Crusaders were a class above.
Having failed to reach expectations, the Blues face a Chiefs team that will take confidence from their triumph against the Hurricanes.
Meanwhile having won three races at the Sundown Supersprint over the weekend, Shane van Gisbergen is setting the Supercars Championship alight.
It represents his fifth consecutive win to start the season.
What makes it more remarkable is he’s doing it with a broken collarbone that required several screws inserted in it.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer