Maestro Mo’unga versus Mighty Mouse
SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: One of the beauties of the New Zealand derbies is that we get head-to-head All Blacks trials in several positions.
They are battles within battles.
None more so than Saturday night’s Crusaders-Chiefs round one clash in Christchurch. The No 10s pit new All Black Richie Mo’unga against the man who would be king, Damian McKenzie. The latter wants the responsibility of running the Chiefs’ cutter after the departure of Aaron Cruden. He has the skill to handle it with aplomb.
But can he make the same impact as he did at fullback in 2017, where he played the most minutes, beat 80 defenders and lit up Super Rugby like a firecracker?
Mo’unga, at 23 a year older and just as wise, is a classy operator, having shown the goods since 2014 with Canterbury and since 2016 with the Crusaders. He is perhaps the best pure No 10 in the country, despite the fact that Beauden Barrett is the world’s best rugby player.
Mo’unga proved the most elusive first five in Super Rugby last year, and his contribution to the Crusaders’ eighth title was significant. Furthermore, he did not button off during the Mitre 10 Cup with Canterbury, playing a virtuoso role in the final as the red and blacks won a ninth premiership in 10 years.
But McKenzie’s ability to also play at 15, as he has shown for the All Blacks, is gold in any squad situation. On that basis, he would have the inside running when the June tests against France roll around.
So we have another instalment of a rivalry which began on the First XV fields of Christchurch in 2011-12, when McKenzie was doing the damage for Christ’s College, to national exposure, while Mo’unga was going about his work in more understated fashion for St Andrew’s College, known locally as STAC.
McKenzie might have won out individually in those days, making the 2012 NZ Barbarians Schools before cracking the NZ Schools of 2013. But he had switched to fullback for the 2014 NZ Under-20 team under Chris Boyd, starting four of the five games from the back.
Mo’unga was originally second string No 10 to captain Simon Hickey in that side, but an injury to the latter saw Mo’unga start three games at first five and one at fullback. Ironically, later that season, Mo’unga ran out mainly in the No 15 jersey for Canterbury, biding his time behind Dan Carter, no less, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor and Tyler Bleyendaal. When the Cantabs faced Waikato, McKenzie was at No 10 for the Mooloos, being exposed with his tackling technique. Mo’unga was seeing all the action from the back.
The stars of both men have since risen exponentially, though McKenzie’s has shone brightest.
“We’re familiar with each other, having played with and against each other. We’re good mates and I especially admire the way he plays. He brings huge X-factor and is a threat to the line. You just have to be prepared,” says Mo’unga, who will be on guard on Saturday night, even if McKenzie has less room than normal for the Chiefs.
“He’s played a bit there at 10, so he’s not coming in having no clue.”
Mo’unga’s mindset does not change, even though he has one All Blacks match – against the French XV – under his belt now. Even with Lima Sopoaga about to fly the coop, Mo’unga cannot afford to let his thoughts drift too often to the second half of the year.
“Playing for the All Blacks is huge for me, my family and my friends, but you can’t rest on anything, so you have to be prepared for any game, be it for Canterbury, Crusaders or the All Blacks,” he says.
“He’s been awesome, just with a new perspective he’s brought around tactics and game management. And he’s been one of the best kickers in rugby. He loves a spiral, so we are trying to bring that into our game,” adds Mo’unga.
Thank goodness for that, a return to spiral punting, after years of front-on, conservative touch-finding.
O’Gara also knows a thing or two about rivalries, having spent years vying with Johnny Sexton for the Ireland No 10 jersey. The latter was ultimately the better player, but O’Gara, though not a noted defender, was a prolific match-winner on his day and had the better temperament under white-hot pressure.
The Mo’unga-McKenzie rivalry is set to spark in similar fashion, so watch closely.