AUCKLAND (Reuters) - New Zealand fullback Damian McKenzie is ready for an aerial bombardment from the Springboks in Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash and is well aware he needs to tidy up his game under the high ball.
With Ben Smith on sabbatical and Israel Dagg injured, McKenzie has been given a good run in the number 15 shirt and although electric in attack, was found wanting last week when faced with some well-judged kicks from the Argentina backs.
“Aerially, I put a few kicks down,” McKenzie said. “We have been working on that this week because there’s always room to improve.”
The Springboks will have done their homework and in centres Jesse Kriel and Jan Serfontein they have the personnel to test the catching skills of the 1.77m-tall McKenzie and 1.80m-tall winger Nehe Milner-Skudder at North Harbour Stadium.
Improvement under the high ball has been on the All Blacks to do list since the last time the Springboks won in New Zealand in 2009.
Back then, the All Blacks struggled to deal with the pressure on the back three from strong tactical kicking backed up with a strong chase line.
Such were their frailties in combatting the tactic, New Zealand spent the next two years specifically working on improving their skills in contesting for and catching the high ball.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said earlier this week that all of his back three players were more than competent under the high ball, it was just a case of communicating better and knowing where to be to support their team mates.
That communication has not been helped by a string of injuries and the trio of McKenzie, Milner-Skudder and Rieko Ioane will be the seventh different back-three combination Hansen has put out in the eight tests this year.
He has had the luxury of picking the same three players - McKenzie, Ben Smith and Ioane - for only the two Rugby Championship clashes with Australia and has this week urged McKenzie to become the “main hinge” for the back three.
“We have spoken about working together this week,” McKenzie said. “I just have to be confident in myself and my role. Just giving as much voice in the areas we can control and bring confidence to the backline.”
The All Blacks back three also has a surprising tinge of green about it given the stability of the side over the past decade. Milner-Skudder is the veteran, having earned nine caps. Ioane has six, while McKenzie has just five.
Their Springboks opposite numbers of fullback Andries Coetzee and wingers Raymond Ruhle and Courtnall Skosan are similarly inexperienced at test level, however.
All three made their debuts this year and have played six matches each but coach Allister Coetzee believes their cohesion as a unit makes up for the lack of internationals they have played.
“Our players might be inexperienced in terms of number of test caps but they are seasoned Super Rugby players,” Coetzee said.
”If you look at their age, they are mature blokes.
”I am pleased with the decisions they make under pressure rather than worrying about how many test caps they have.
”I am happy with the way they work together in terms of cover and rotation. They’re used to playing with each other, there is a synergy there.
“That’s what I‘m looking at the most, not how many test matches they have played.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney