Flyhalves shine in Super Rugby, chasing All Blacks, Wallabies spots

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The performance of Damian McKenzie for the Chiefs against the Fijian Drua on Saturday again has highlighted the high quality of flyhalves in Super Rugby Pacific this season.

McKenzie seemed to pop up everywhere at the Waikato Stadium in the Hamilton-based Chiefs’ 46-29 win. He had a hand in several of the Chiefs’ six tries, kicked six from seven from the tee and made several scrambling tackles in cover defense.

McKenzie showed why he is the heir apparent to the All Blacks’ No. 10 jersey this season after the departure of Richie Mo’unga to Japan. While he has a good kicking game, his first instinct is to take on the defensive line and that often has brought a new dimension to New Zealand's game in his 47 matches in the black jersey.

Before the Super Rugby began, McKenzie noted the vacancy at flyhalf for the All Blacks and set his sights on it.

“There’s a clear and obvious opportunity there in the first five position,” McKenzie said. “That’s the position I want to play and that’s where I want to be, being able to lead this team.

“I know there’s a lot of work to be done before that first team gets named so I’m really excited for that opportunity.”

On Saturday, McKenzie was opposite Drua flyhalf Isaiah Ravula-Armstrong who is regarded as a player of exceptional promise. The 20-year-old is a nephew of Richie Mo’unga, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand and qualifies for the All Blacks by birth and for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa through his grandparents.

Ravula-Armstrong grew up in Brisbane, Australia playing rugby league before moving back to New Zealand after being spotted by rugby scouts at 16. He played first XV at St. Andrew’s College in Christchurch and later played for the Hurricanes Under-20 team and Manawatu province before representing Fiji at the Under-20 World Cup.

“I base a lot of rugby around having fun, being young,” Ravula-Armstrong told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “At trainings me and my mate would be having a laugh and the older boys are like ‘pull your heads in.‘

“But being Fijiian when you’re having fun is when you’re playing your best.”

Hurricanes flyhalf Brett Cameron also has shone in the early part of the season. Cameron played one test for the All Blacks as a replacement against Japan in 2018.

He moved to the Hurricanes after playing for the Crusaders, mostly as an understudy to Mo’unga and he has flourished this season after being handed the No. 10 jersey ahead of Aidan Morgan and Ruben Love who has become established at fullback.

Stephen Perofeta has led the Auckland-based Blues well from flyhalf this season, though his goalkicking at times has been under par.

Moana Pasifika flyhalf Willie Havili started for Tonga in World Cup matches against Ireland, Scotland and South Africa last season. He had 31 points at the tournament and has 38 so far this season in Super Rugby Pacific.

The Highlanders have signed former Wales flyhalf Rhys Patchell who started the first three matches of the season but missed Saturday’s 27-21 loss to the Brumbies.

Ironically, the Crusaders are possibly the only team to be short-handed at flyhalf this season. The 11-time champions have used three flyhalves in four matches, most recently Riley Hohepa who had a solid match in their 14-10 loss to the Hurricanes on Friday. He may now hold the position long-term.

Several strong candidates are competing for the Wallabies flyhalf role this season. Noah Lolesio, a veteran of 20 tests discarded by Eddie Jones, had a strong second half for the ACT Brumbies in their win against the Highlanders on Saturday. The first half was scrappy but Lolesio controlled the match well in a more structured second half. He was 5-5 from the tee.

Melbourne Rebels flyhalf Carter Gordon was first promoted, then discarded by Jones last season and will be in the frame when new Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt picks his first team of the season. Schmidt also has noted the good early season form of New South Wales Waratahs flyhalf Tane Edmed.

Edmed was a key figure in the Warathahs’ 37-24 win over the Crusaders in round two.

“I don’t think I’m someone who’s really blessed with athletic ability,” Edmed told Australia’s Stan Sport. “I pride myself on my ability to carry hard and direct when we need to.”

Tom Lynagh for the Queensland Reds and the Western Force’s Ben Donaldson also have been in good form.


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