March 14, 2018 / 6:30 AM / 9 days ago

McKenzie's flyhalf switch stays on fullback burner

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Waikato Chiefs coach Colin Cooper’s plans to play Damian McKenzie more regularly at flyhalf have remained on hold with the mercurial 22-year-old named at fullback for Friday’s Super Rugby clash against South Africa’s Bulls.

Rugby Union - Autumn Internationals - Scotland vs New Zealand - BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Britain - November 18, 2017 New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie celebrates scoring a try REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

McKenzie was arguably New Zealand’s best player during last year’s Rugby Championship when he lit up the competition as an electrifying and at times unpredictable fullback, but had expected to play more often at flyhalf this term.

He started the first game against the Canterbury Crusaders in the pivotal role but was shunted back to fullback shortly before kickoff against the Auckland Blues the following week after Shaun Stevenson was injured in the warmup.

Rookie Tiaan Falcon played flyhalf against the Blues and has retained the number 10 jersey for the Bulls match at Waikato Stadium as the Chiefs continue to battle a plethora of injuries.

“It’s a matter of fitting the best people into the job,” Chiefs assistant coach Neil Barnes told reporters in Hamilton on Wednesday.

“We’re very confident in Tiaan, he made a good fist considering he had only 10 minutes preparation for his first hitout. It’s a bit of a confidence booster for him, so I’m sure he’ll go well.”

McKenzie, who played much of his teenage years as a flyhalf, was blocked from playing in the position at the Chiefs by All Blacks pivot Aaron Cruden, who has since moved to France.

Cooper, who took over from Dave Rennie, had said last year that he wanted McKenzie to play flyhalf this season, while All Blacks coaches also see his long-term future for New Zealand in the position.

McKenzie was considered to be in competition with 16-test flyhalf Lima Sopoaga as the understudy to two-times World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett in the national side.

Sopoaga, however, will join English club Wasps for next season, thrusting McKenzie and Canterbury Crusaders flyhalf Richie Mo’unga into a battle for the role.

Mo’unga, however, broke his jaw last week, which would have allowed McKenzie the opportunity to convince the selectors he was the next cab off the rank.

But the Chiefs’ injury list meant he would remain at fullback for the foreseeable future and Barnes added that McKenzie had no qualms about playing there.

“It’s a long season and he’ll get his opportunities, obviously when the other boys come back,” Barnes added. “He’s a team person and he’s doing what’s best for the team, he enjoys playing there.

“Obviously, the first chance we get, Damian will probably shift back up to 10.”

Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien

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