Like seemingly everyone, Glenn Delaney watched Damian McKenzie with an eagle eye during the All Blacks’ 49-14 win against France last weekend.
The Highlanders’ defence coach was scouting the much discussed first-five eighth ahead of Saturday night’s match against the Chiefs in Fiji, the Dunedin-based team’s penultimate regular season ‘home’ game.
McKenzie, who many believe is better suited to fullback, scored two tries and finished with 24 points in his first start in the No 10 jersey for the national side.
“I thought it was his best test. He controlled the game very well, and I think he made his injections at the right time, they were excellent. He’s a real handful to stop and he’s got that rare thing called pace,” Delaney said.
“[McKenzie] is in great form and I think the Chiefs will be happy to have him back driving their game. For us, he’s obviously going to be part of their game that we need to nullify. We’ve got loads of different tactics.”
Conjuring up a plan to stifle McKenzie is no easy task. But the first-year defence coach did mastermind the plan which shut down the Hurricanes, and first-five Beauden Barrett, in the Highlanders’ impressive 30-14 win in Dunedin before the international window halted the competition.
While not perfect, Delaney believes it was the team’s best defensive performance of the season, and one which will need to be repeated in another high-stakes New Zealand derby.
The 9-4 Highlanders are third in the New Zealand conference with 40 points, three clear of the Chiefs. Currently fifth on the overall log, winning will keep alive the Highlanders’ slim chances of nabbing a home quarterfinal.
“We’ll go out there and try and make sure we’ve got a defensive plan that’s going to deal with the Chiefs right across the board, and that goes for every other aspect of their game, because if you just fixate on Damian, you’re going to miss a lot of other stuff.
“Charlie Ngatai is playing very well for them, and Solomona Alaimalo is the most dangerous counter-attacker in the comp. You start looking right across their team and there’s problems everywhere. That, coupled with a really industrious back row, and one of the best scrums in the comp, says the Chiefs are a very good side,” Delaney said.
The Highlanders, otherwise fully healthy, will have to get by without rugged loose forward Liam Squire, who injured his shoulder playing for the All Blacks in the second test match against France.
It means veteran Elliot Dixon, or rookie Shannon Frizell, fresh from making his All Blacks debut last weekend, will likely start on the blindside flank.
“We’ll do our level best to see if we can get him [Squire] ready for next week [against the Crusaders], but that will be down to how he responds. The collision he took when he got hurt, it was a pretty good one,” Delaney said.