All Blacks coach Ian Foster is happy for his selection headache in the No.10 jersey, with three world-class options to choose from heading into this year’s international season.
After the first eight rounds of Super Rugby Pacific, the trio of Damian McKenzie, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga are all making their cases to be the go-to at first-five as the All Blacks build towards this year’s World Cup.
Since Foster took the reins of the All Blacks in 2021, Barrett and Mo’unga have predominantly shared duties at No.10, while McKenzie’s form for the table-topping Chiefs this year has thrown his name into the ring as well.
The All Blacks have in the past made use of a ‘dual-playmaker’ system that would see either Barrett or McKenzie operate at fullback to partner the chosen first-five.
That strategy was largely done away with in 2022, before making a resurgence when Barrett moved into the No.15 jersey to fill the void left by younger brother Jordie’s move into midfield.
But with the All Blacks playing just five tests before this year’s World Cup, time is limited for Foster and his fellow coaches to chop and change between the three playmakers.
All up, speaking on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, the All Blacks coach admitted his delight in having such a tough decision to make, even though he’s giving nothing away on who his preferred No.10 is.
“The reality is that we’re pleased,” said Foster. “If you go back two years ago, we were probably a bit concerned with who was behind Beaudy [Barrett] and Richie.
“Now, we’re seeing the emergence of Stephen Perofeta coming through, and Damian’s come back, and took a little while to find his feet at the end of last year, but has been really impressive in Super Rugby.
“We’re reasonably settled. We don’t need to play our hand right now but we’ve got a clear idea.
“We’ve got players working now on facets of the game, because we need to build depth going to the World Cup.
“It’s a tough competition, we’ve all seen the impact of injuries on tournaments.
“For us now, it’s a matter of getting as many options as we can – we’re getting quite greedy.”
Foster also commended McKenzie’s form for the Chiefs, currently clear as the standout side in Super Rugby Pacific, with eight wins from eight games.
After years spent as a utility player switching between first-five and fullback, a prolonged run in the No.10 jersey has benefited the 28-year-old this season, leading to his name being thrown into the ring alongside Barrett and Mo’unga.
“His challenge at 10 has been his depth management, being able to know when to play flat and when to play deep,” Foster said of McKenzie. “He instinctively likes to take the ball to the line.
“He’s now got that sorted, I reckon. He’s doing a good job in that space. He’s controlling the game with territory.
“Historically, Damian was more inclined on the high-risk, high-reward strategy. That’s the part that’s impressing us the most.
“He’s still got a bit of work [to do]. Ironically, his goal-kicking is probably not as effective as what it’s been in the past.
“There’s a few things he’s got to keep working on, but he’s a big mover. We’re excited for him.”