RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP, ROUND ONE: One of the big talking points after Ian Foster revealed this week has been the selection at flyhalf.
In what many are considering a surprise move, the All Blacks selectors have opted for Damian McKenzie in the pivotal role for Saturday’s Rugby Championship Test against Argentina in Mendoza.
“Obviously stoked and probably didn’t expect it,” said the 28-year-old, who was not wanted by the All Blacks last year on his return from a season in Japan.
In 41 Tests, it will be only the third start in the No.10 jersey for the Chiefs utility back, and his first Test in 20 months.
Richie Mo’unga, who guided the Crusaders to their victory over the Chiefs in the Super Rugby Final two weeks ago, is on the bench, with Test centurion Beauden Barrett at fullback.
McKenzie said while he was first choice to pull the strings against Argentina in the opening Test of the year, he was taking nothing for granted.
“We’ve still got Richie and Baz [Barrett] playing good rugby, so I wouldn’t say the jersey is mine whatsoever, but it is an opportunity,” he said.
“For me, it’s just about playing my game. Obviously, we’ve got a game plan but you just want to be yourself, be instinctive, and play the rugby that I tried to play all year.”
Coach Foster said the All Blacks’ focus was “to build combinations in a vital year” with the World Cup just two months away.
An area which Foster has pinpointed as critical against the Pumas is defence.
“If you don’t really commit in terms of your defensive line, then you struggle with them,” he said.
“We know that they’re really willing around the breakdown, and that’s kind of where the battle often is against Argentina.”
Foster also appears to have one eye on the following week’s encounter with South Africa in Auckland by resting veteran locks Samuel Whitelock and Brodie Retallick and having Josh Lord in this third Test partnering Scott Barrett in the second row.
The South Africans have already signalled their intentions by including several stars among 12 Springboks who will bypass their Test this weekend against Australia and go straight to New Zealand to prepare to face the All Blacks.
The All Blacks line-up against Argentina includes one new cap, with Emoni Narawa on the right wing.
Meanwhile, for Argentina, Lucio Sordoni earned a recall to the Argentina squad after nearly three years away – a large part of it through injury – and will line up in the first row.
Santiago Carreras is preferred at flyhalf to Nicolas Sanchez in a team captained by hooker Julian Montoya.
France-based trio Juan Imhoff, Joel Sclavi and Juan Cruz Mallia were all left out after taking part in the Top 14 play-offs last month, while Marcos Kremer is suspended.
Argentina head coach Michael Cheika is relishing facing the All Blacks in his team’s first outing of the year.
“The teams that are at the top of the tree in world rugby are always the ones we want to be playing against because they make us better,” Cheika told The Breakdown show.
On his team’s preparation, Cheika added: “It has been different. We have done a lot of things remotely due to some of the restrictions put on us by players not being all together and coming in from Europe.
“I have been really pleased with the way things are going.”
Cheika has outlined some of the goals for his team in the Rugby Championship with the World Cup just a couple of months away.
“It is a balance of being competitive and playing and getting that high-stakes preparation, which I think has always been good in the Southern Hemisphere.
“We get the Rugby Championship before the World Cup and we are still playing for something really important for all the teams.
“It is a real balance between the competition side of things and getting things right around getting people peaked for the World Cup, but at the same time being able to guage yourself against teams that are of the highest quality.”
Players to watch
For Argentina: Fullback Emiliano Boffelli has played every Test since Michael Cheika took over last year and he will be key once again in Mendoza. His positioning around the field is excellent and he is a big threat when he joins the attacking line. His accurate boot can also give the All Blacks headaches, especially when it comes to penalties. Flyhalf Santiago Carreras has shown what he is capable of when playing behind a dominant pack of forwards. He can create something out of nothing on attack, but when he is put under pressure, he tends to make a lot of mistakes. In the pack, Pablo Matera will look to disrupt the All Blacks’ ball at the breakdowns and he is an aggressive ball carrier as well. Lock Tomas Lavanini has been described as a walking card machine in the past and he will need to keep his discipline in check.
For New Zealand: All eyes will be on Damian McKenzie in that flyhalf role. He has proven himself in Super Rugby and Foster will be keen to see if he can transfer that game management over to international level. He will surely trouble Argentina’s defence when he has ball in hand, but he will need to show some variation in his play in Test rugby. Another player that will have a spotlight on him will be Emoni Narawa. It’s his debut and he gets the No.14 jersey. He has pace and power and he will be a handful when given enough space to work with. In the pack, Josh Lord gets an opportunity to impress in the second row after a bad run of injuries. Like McKenzie, he is making his first international appearance since 2021 and he will need to hit the ground running to improve his World Cup chances.
Head to head
New Zealand by twenty points.
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Lucio Cinti, 11 Mateo Carreras, 10 Santiago Carreras, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Rodrigo Bruni, 7 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matias Alemanno, 3 Lucio Sordoni, 2 Julian Montoya (captain), 1 Thomas Gallo.
Replacements: 16 Augustin Creevy, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Eduardo Bello, 19 Pedro Rubiolo, 20 Sanriago Grondona, 21 Lautaro Bazan Velez, 22 Nicolas Sanchez, 23 Matias Orlando.
New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Emoni Narawa, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Lord, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Date: Saturday, July 8
Venue: Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza
Kick-off: 16.10 (19.10 GMT; 07.10, Sunday, July 9 New Zealand’s time)
Expected weather: It will be clear and sunny with a high of 15 and a low of 7 with a slight breeze.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Australia)