Since his debut for the Chiefs At the age of 20 in 2015, McKenzie tore through the competition and was consistently among the top five players in the competition for line jumps, beat defenders and broken tackles.
He was an excitement machine that made big plays on a Chiefs team led by Dave Rennie who liked to run the ball from anywhere as skilled players like Aaron Cruden, James Low, Seta Tamanivalu and Anton Lienert-Brown gelled together in a high score attack.
There were calls for McKenzie to break into the All Blacks in those early years with the Chiefs, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he started regularly at the back for New Zealand following injuries to Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett.
In 2018, the consensus was that McKenzie was the All Blacks’ future front five, despite having mainly played from the back throughout his brief professional career.
His school days and age as a No 10 led to many singling him out for a permanent job change at some point, although most acknowledged that at the time his talent was best used on the back.
This has resulted in New Zealand investing in building a 10-15 partnership between Beauden Barrette and McKenzie throughout 2017 and 2018.
When Barrett was injured with a concussion against France Four years ago McKenzie starred when he received his first starting test in the top five against the Blues in Dunedin.
That was until their hand was forced following McKenzie’s ACL injury in early 2019. As a natural No. 10, Mo’unga would play the front five and Barrett was moved to the back.
It was worth a try, but it never worked. Instead, the positional reshuffle cost Barrett a World Cup campaign in its prime, with his ability exemplified by two man-of-the-match performances against South Africa and Ireland.
Looking back, the Barrett-McKenzie partnership had better chemistry, working for both players despite the two being similar players in many ways.
Both are criticized for their lack of game management skills, exploring too much with out-of-the-box decisions and unconventional running.
They often push the high-risk pass, putting their own team under pressure, and are naturally creative and dynamic ball runners.
However, at the end of the day, they are producing runs and trying to score chances.
Versus England in 2018, it was McKenzie who scored Barrett’s only try for an inside ball, and he had three clean breaks while beating 11 defenders.
He was shaky under the high ball, but produced enough attack to overcome the negatives and finish with a huge net positive impact that proved decisive in overcoming a 15-0 deficit.
In the 2019 semi-final without McKenzie and with the Mo’unga-Barrett partnership against the same England team, the All Blacks would have been “cancelled” had it not been for a knockdown error recovered by Ardie Savea.
They had practically nothing in attack and could not leave the defense.
Perhaps the most overlooked and undervalued talking point in the Barrett-Mo’unga-McKenzie debate is their defensive ability, which is absolutely essential Test-wise.
Barrett doesn’t even need to be high on that front as he saved so many tries for the All Blacks. His tackles are a highlight reel in their own right.
As for the other two, McKenzie shines over Mo’unga in this area, and the difference is palpable in testing.
McKenzie was never the greatest frame, but he’s a much more consistent defender than Mo’unga. It may be the result of putting your body on the line against bigger players in the open field while playing from the back.
The All Blacks still sometimes have to hide Mo’unga on the pitch, as do the Crusaders. That’s not to say he can’t tackle, his application is just less effective than McKenzie.
His defense in the line is often a target for opposing teams, which is the biggest detract from his potential as an elite Test player.
When the All Blacks lost to France last November, Les Bleus were able to manufacture one-on-ones against Mo’unga by running screens to distract his inside cover, and the top five Romain Ntamack beat him inside for a try.
McKenzie never really saw his defensive ability challenged as, time and time again, he found strengths against a much bigger man.
Apart from his defensive incompetence at times, Mo’unga struggled to show his playmaking class against elite teams like the Springboks, England, France and Ireland.
His three biggest performances with the All Blacks all came against the Wallabies – twice at Eden Park in 2019 and 2020, then again in Sydney two years ago.
Mo’unga’s attacking prowess failed to flourish against more threatening and powerful opposition, and the same can be said when Los cougars famously bullied the All Blacks into submission two years ago.
Despite all the talk about the security of his game management skills, he couldn’t stamp his authority and manage these games.
It’s never a player’s fault and Mo’unga can’t be entirely blamed, but Barrett and McKenzie’s freewheeling style can often produce plays that bail out the team when they’re not doing so well. .
Apart from these tests against the Wallabies, Mo’unga did not do that for the All Blacks against the best in the world.
Despite all this, McKenzie’s All Blacks career languished while Mo’unga’s continued, to the point where the Chiefs playmaker simply packed his bags and left for Japan at the end of last year.
Not on contract sabbatical signed by New Zealand Rugby [NZR]but on a “see you later, see you later” agreement orchestrated of his own accord.
As it stands, McKenzie and Mo’unga are both 27 with 40 and 32 tests respectively each. The former has had the best Testing career so far, although he hasn’t featured as prominently since returning from injury as he did between 2017 and 2018.
Since returning, McKenzie has been messed up as a utility, filling the bench eight times and starting eight times.
At the end of last year’s Rugby League, he came on as a bench substitute against South Africa twice, played in illogical positions as a center and winger, and got just one only start against Italy in Europe.
McKenzie is apparently completely irrelevant to the Ireland series with no NZR deal in place. Mo’unga, meanwhile, is eyeing a career-defining series to prove his mettle, but it looks like Barrett is the top-five option again.
If Barrett is back as number one in the top five, when looking at who should fill a potential bench spot, McKenzie is the obvious option over Mo’unga due to his versatility, stronger defense and unpredictable attack traits.
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