Paul Cully writing for Stuff.co.nz
All eyes will be trained on the Damian McKenzie project in Christchurch on Saturday night but the All Blacks already have their man in Crusaders opposite Richie Mo’unga.
Mo’unga is the best classical five-eighth in the country.
He starts to drive the team tactically before the game even starts. His play is assured and cerebral because his preparation is too.
“He is a student of the game,” 2016 Canterbury team-mate Dave McDuling tells me
Not only can Mo’unga make the All Blacks this year, but he can be an instrumental figure when he gets there.
McDuling’s voice is worth listening to. As a proud Aussie he gets no reward for promoting the talents of another Kiwi No 10 – it’s genuine. More significantly, he’s seen a few good No 10s. He has been in professional programs at the Reds (Quade Cooper), the Sharks in South Africa (Pat Lambie) and the Waratahs (Bernard Foley).He is not in the inexact business of ranking these players but is firm on one thing: Mo’unga is the real deal.
“He can go anywhere,” McDuling says. “Richie struck me straight away as a natural leader.
“He’s really confident in addressing the group and controlling the game and setting the gameplan.” “He’s massively involved in strategies and explaining why we are going to do certain things and bossing people around.”
That should be music to the ears of All Blacks fans nervously surveying the depth at No 10. Talent is one thing but when it comes to the No 10 position personality is important too.
It also explains why the Crusaders put Mo’unga straight back into the team after injury in the early stages of last year’s campaign, despite Mitch Hunt performing admirably.
In Hamilton, the Chiefs are hoping McKenzie develops a greater tactical awareness and voice at training. But Mo’unga is already there.
There are areas for improvement. Mo’unga can be better under the high ball and, while he does not lack bravery, the rampaging Ngani Laumape trampled him twice on defence last year. Yet criticism of his performance against the British and Irish Lions has been overdone. Beauden Barrett had three attempts to break down Warren Gatland’s tourists and could not find an answer.
The playmaker is not about to take Barrett’s All Blacks jersey, imminently at least.
The All Blacks’ selection philosophy, over years, has put a premium on experience. It has been one of the pillars on which they have built their success. Barrett has it, as well as his rare athletic abilities. He will start against the French in June.
But that is only part of the story. Barrett is used in such an unorthodox fashion that the No 10 picked on the bench automatically takes on a weighty role.
Often, Barrett is moved to fullback for the last quarter or so. No other nation in the world does it and neither did New Zealand until recently.
In fact, it means the language we use when discussing the All Blacks at No 10 needs a tweak.
The description ‘back-up’ does an injustice to the man on the pine. Essentially, he operates in a partnership with Barrett. It is the benchman who often has the responsibility of steering the ship home.
It is a role Liam Sopoaga played well last year and one that Mo’unga looks born for.
As McDuling says: “He thrives on the responsibility of being the playmaker and being the No 10, that’s what you want.”
This article is original copy of Stuff.co.nz