Damian McKenzie charged with leading an inexperienced All Blacks back three
Young fullback Damian McKenzie is being challenged to prove his leadership among an inexperienced back three for the All Blacks' Freedom Cup test against South Africa.
The 22-year-old is filling in through the Rugby Championship, and beyond, at fullback for the absent Ben Smith and injured Jodie Barrett. He forms a raw back three with wingers Reiko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
With only 20 tests between them, McKenzie would need to be the "main hinge of a very inexperienced back three", coach Steve Hansen insisted.
"He's been doing a good job from that point of view. It's an exciting challenge for them as a group of players and they're looking forward to it." Hansen said on Thursday.
McKenzie said being in the All Blacks environment has helped his confidence and he will be focusing on communication and doing his bit to improve the backline on Saturday night.
"I've had a lot of help from the boys around me giving me confidence, so again it's another good opportunity this weekend," he said.
Team-mate Beauden Barrett jokingly said McKenzie's chat may be "questionable off the field" but reassured he's "very chirpy at the back" and has been giving good direction to the other players.
Since his international debut in 2016, McKenzie has played just five tests and said, as important is it is to work on strengths, he's had to focus on his weaknesses.
"There's always room to improve .... I'm trying to do that throughout the week on and off the field so I can get to Saturday and be as clear as possible," McKenzie said.
One of those challenges for the dynamic Chiefs player has been under the high ball, where he was exposed a couple of times on Saturday against Argentina. As All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said: "he'd probably be better if he was six foot eight, but he's dealt with it pretty well".
"We've got no issues. He shows a lot of courage and he certainly won't die wondering when he goes for the high ball," said Foster, "Like any player he'll make a mistake but he doesn't go into his shell, he carries on playing."
With Milner-Skudder missing the 2016 season with a long-term shoulder injury and Ioane playing his first full season with the All Blacks this year, the back three will be looking for every injection of confidence they can get.