How to use your eyes – the 10/15 hybrid and engaging the last defender on attack
The first Bledisloe match of 2017 between New Zealand and Australia was decided partly in advance, by selection before the game ever started.
Key to New Zealand’s approach was the selection of Damian McKenzie at full-back. I doubt McKenzie got much of a look from the All Black selectors for the June Test series against the British & Irish Lions, but against Australia and in a very different competition in the form of the The Rugby Championship, he was considered good enough to push the world’s best full-back Ben Smith out to the right wing.
McKenzie is one of a group of hybrid players who can play both #15 and #10, and it is a new niche which the New Zealand coaches believe they can grow to their advantage. As Grant Fox explained:
“We haven’t gone down really deep as to how we will use Damian, but if you think about the role Beauden Barrett used to play from the bench in that 10/15 slot – that’s the skill set Damian has got…. Damian is very talented, can play both positions, but we think he could be very dangerous as a first set of hands in that first receiver role, taking the defence on.”
What Barrett and McKenzie have in common is the foot-speed and acceleration of a full-back, and the ability of a first receiver to work other people around them into space.
Like Barrett, and especially with Beauden’s big brother Jordie likely to be wearing the All Blacks’ #15 jersey for many years to come when Smith retires, McKenzie will probably end up at outside-half or first five-eighth in the international arena. But his ability to play both positions is an invaluable asset, especially when the reserve bench comes into play in the second half of games.
Against Australia – unlike the Lions – there was little threat of the opposition kicking game exposing McKenzie’s relative lack of size and presence under the high ball, so it was an ideal opportunity for McKenzie to show his attacking wares from full-back.
One essential aspect of the 10/15 hybrid role is the desire and capacity to engage defenders, in particular the last defender in the line, and persuade them to fix their position or ‘take root’.
The passage of play leading up the All Blacks’ second try of the game at Sydney showcased both McKenzie and Barrett’s ability to do just that, engaging the last defender with use of the eyes and forcing a commitment.
The sequence was sparked by a McKenzie break after Sam Whitelock had won back an All Black kick-off:
When McKenzie receives the ball from Sonny Bill Williams he has a couple of spare attackers outside him (Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith) but there are still two Wallaby defenders to negotiate in Samu Kerevi (opposite McKenzie) and #11 Curtis Rona.
McKenzie has two tasks in front of him, one related to his background as a #15 and the other to his ability as a #10. He has to run around Kerevi using his back three-type speed and then engage Rona with his eyes and persuade him to ‘take root’.
The key moment is shown in this screenshot:
McKenzie has just managed the first part of his job and run around Kerevi, and he is about to execute the second.
In the still frame, Rona has stopped to look in at McKenzie because the New Zealand full-back is running an angle directly towards him. In the process, his feet are together and planted, so he has given up the ability to cover the two outside Kiwi attackers. As soon as McKenzie sees the ‘fix’, he sells the dummy and releases Crotty.
The end of the sequence shows New Zealand’s other 10/15 hybrid managing the same kind of process:
Numbers are not in New Zealand’s favour in this instance. There are six Australian defenders and only three New Zealand attackers in the shot from behind the posts at the beginning of the play.
Beauden Barrett’s task is simpler than McKenzie’s this close to the Australian goal-line. He simply has to use his eyes to attract the last defender (Israel Folau), see the ‘fix’ and release left wing Rieko Ioane on the outside.
The key moment occurs in the following frame:
Barrett takes a couple of paces across field, just enough for him to be able to ‘look off’ Folau and persuade him to take root for a moment. That is enough to create some room for Rieko Ioane to fade outside the Wallaby full-back and squeeze in at the corner for the try.
While the 10/15 hybrid is not a new combination, it is rare for the player who occupies that role to start life as a 15. Players like Percy Montgomery, Berrick Barnes and James Hook all started life as outside-halves, then moved to full-back for a sizeable portion of their international careers.
In the cases of Beauden Barrett and potentially Damian McKenzie, that process has been reversed, with both players serving at #15 for most of their early Super Rugby careers.
Perhaps the All Blacks are looking to bring more burning speed to the hybrid position. After all, the modern #10 does spend much of his time in defence in the backfield as a second full-back, so the addition of an outside-half with full-back skills clearly adds attacking value in that area.
Whatever the intent, the danger is real. A player who can both beat defenders by speed and acceleration and then have the poise of a natural first receiver to deliver the final pass represents a tremendous threat, especially in the New Zealand system of attack. We will be hearing more of Damian McKenzie in years to come.