Opinion: How the All Blacks can replace Damian McKenzie for 2019 World Cup

With Damian McKenzie out of the reckoning for this year's Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks' selectors have been left with a near impossible task of replacing him in the attempt for a third straight Webb Ellis trophy.

Damian McKenzie leaves the game injured during a clash between the Chiefs and Blues. Source: Photosport

McKenzie's ability to play both first-five and fullback meant he'd have been a key cog in Steve Hansen's plans, especially if the All Blacks were to go with the 'dual playmaker' gameplan we saw on last year's northern tour.

Instead though, Hansen and co. will be left scrambling to find an alternative, just over five months out from Japan 2019.

However, if we're to consider how McKenzie is replaced, we first need to understand what his exact role in the All Blacks is.

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The All Blacks coach managed to force a smile despite losing the Chiefs back for the season. Source: 1 NEWS

While he's often talked about in the same sentence as Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga as primary first-fives, McKenzie's role in the All Blacks is more of a fullback who can cover the number 10 and playmaking roles when called upon, despite his desire to been seen otherwise.

Because of this, calls for the likes of Dan Carter, Stephen Donald or Aaron Cruden to make All Blacks comebacks would therefore be somewhat misguided, still effectively leaving Hansen short of options in the outside backs.

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The youngest Barrett brother has been deployed out of position in recent weeks. Source: 1 NEWS

From what we know, the All Blacks selectors' squad for Japan will most likely consist of a 32-man group, made up of three hookers, three halfbacks and then two of every other position.

McKenzie's injury won't open up a space in the squad for another first-five, with Barrett and Mo'unga all but nailed on for those two spots. Instead, it opens up a spot for another fullback capable of moving higher up the pitch when needed.

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McKenzie will wear the number 15 against Australia in Tokyo. Source: 1 NEWS

Ben Smith will without any doubt be one fullback taken to the World Cup, being the best in the world in the 15 jersey, Rieko Ioane and George Bridge should find themselves as two of the four wingers.

Will Jordan or Braydon Ennor have certainly done enough to turn Steve Hansen's head with their respective form for the Crusaders, while Waisake Naholo appears to be playing for his place, although was included in the All Blacks' foundation day earlier this month.

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Havili has played three Tests for New Zealand and has won two Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders. Source: 1 NEWS

While a player like Marty Banks of the Highlanders certainly has the versatility needed to step in for McKenzie, his role is more of a first-five who can cover fullback, rather than the other way around. It might also be hard for him to find gametime at fullback for the Highlanders unless something happens to Ben Smith.

McKenzie's older brother Marty might also be a contender for the vacant spot, however he might be considered as a jack of all trades, master of none, having never been a standout in either the 10 or 15 jersey in Super Rugby or the Mitre 10 Cup.

A cynic would argue that young first-fives like Josh Ioane of the Highlanders, Brett Cameron of the Crusaders and Otere Black of the Blues are too one dimensional for All Blacks call ups at this stage, realistically unable to cover as a fullback in a Test match.

If the selection criteria does indeed now revolve around a first-choice fullback capable of filling in elsewhere, then two players stand out: Jordie Barrett of the Hurricanes, and David Havili of the Crusaders.

True, neither of them have spent any considerable time in the number 10 jersey, but they've both displayed - albeit at a lower level - the rudimentary playmaking abilites of a first-five.

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Crusaders' utility back Havili has been called into the All Blacks after Jordie Barrett suffered a shoulder injury. Source: 1 NEWS

Barrett's versatility could prove to be Steve Hansen's trump card, having covered nearly the whole backline for the Hurricanes this season, and could just as easily find himself in the squad as a winger rather than a fullback.

Havili meanwhile has impressed many with his in-game kicking abilities, equally adept at running the ball and already has five Test caps to his name.

Both are positionally versatile enough to fill in wherever asked, now we just have to see where Steve Hansen will trust them to play.

While replacing Damian McKenzie is a nigh on impossible job for any player currently in the system, the beauty of New Zealand rugby over the past few years has been players emerging at just the right time.

With the countdown to Japan 2019 sitting at five months at the time of writing, the race is on for a number of players to prove their wares and cement their spots for All Blacks selection. 

And if Steve Hansen wants to keep the dual playmaker strategy alive for another season, then Jordie Barrett or David Havili could be the final pieces of a jigsaw currently stuck with a Damian McKenzie-shaped hole.