Rugby World Cup: Damian McKenzie-Cam Roigard combination gathers momentum as All Blacks wind up pool campaign

Even as they focus on the business at hand - booking passage into the World Cup quarter-finals - the All Blacks will get another look at their possible future, with halfback Cam Roigard and utility Damian McKenzie named to start against Uruguay in their pool finale.

While the three-time champions still need victory over the 17th-ranked South Americans to clinch their spot in the tournament knockout stages, coach Ian Foster has rotated his line-up to rest some of his frontline performers, while giving others much-needed gametime.

Among the recipients of the latter are Roigard and McKenzie, whose developing relationship may take on more traction next year, when the programme - under new coach Scott Robertson - loses several veterans to offshore contracts.

Damian McKenzie and Cam Roigard at training, with coach Ian Foster.
Damian McKenzie and Cam Roigard at training, with coach Ian Foster. Photo credit: Getty Images

Among those departing are incumbent halfback Aaron Smith and first-five Richie Mo'unga, along with utility Beauden Barrett.

While Robertson may have his own ideas how the backline takes shape going forward, Roigard and McKenzie appeal as an obvious inside-back combination that has been given a chance to gel during this tournament. 

They started together against Namibia and closed out the game against Italy, but while McKenzie will line up in the No.15 jersey this week, he insists not much will change under the All Blacks' dual playmaker strategy.

"I think we're starting to grow a pretty decent combination," he said. "The great thing is we both like playing at a high tempo and it's been great to play outside Cam, when he's come on.

"I just let him do his thing and run off him when I need to be. He knows what I want and I know what he wants.

"Bit of a different role this weekend - Cam still at 9 and I'm at 15 - but with the way we play as a team, we always find ourselves in first receiver, so I'm sure that combination will definitely be used again this weekend."

Foster hints McKenzie may replace Mo'unga at first-five later in the game, but by that stage, Roigard may have given way to Finlay Christie off the bench.

Arguably the form player through Super Rugby Pacific, McKenzie has struggled to take that  impact to the next level, although his performance against the Italians showed what he could do against tiring opposition - a try, 75 running metres, three linebreaks, four defenders beaten and two offloads, along with flawless goalkicking.  

"We were really pleased with Damian last week and we want to grow his influence in our team," said Foster.

"This is a good opportunity for him to do that and Beaudy can be that calm head coming off the bench, if we end up moving Damian to 10 later on. It will just keep growing the combinations we think are working well for us."

Rookie Roigard has quickly worked his way up the pecking order of halfbacks, leapfrogging the likes of Brad Weber and Folau Fakatava to make the World Cup squad, before supplanting Christie as Smith's deputy and even applying some heat to the little master with his diverse skillset.

He's not the complete product yet.

"I want to see what he's good at," said Foster. "He brings an edge to the running game, he's a threat and I want him to stick with that.

"His leftfoot kicking is a real asset for us... we haven't got a lot of leftfooters among our inside backs, so that's a bonus. That's a couple of really strong positives I want him to carry on.

"One thing I want him to do is improve the accuracy of his pass. When he's been coming on, he's probably been rushing that aspect of his game a little bit, and this is a chance for him to settle into his game and get that right, and show it can be a massive strength for him as well."

Cam Roigard and fellow halfbacks Aaron Smith and Finlay Christie at training.
Cam Roigard and fellow halfbacks Aaron Smith and Finlay Christie at training. Photo credit: Getty Images

Roigard has been fortunate that his arrival in the national team has overlapped with Smith's swansong, spending most of his debut campaign learning from one of the game's greatest. He admits there are elements of his repertoire that still need attention.

"That's always a work-on for most nines," said Roigard of his passing. "That's probably the most important part of our game and sets the platform for the way the All Blacks want to play.     

"[Smith] has been awesome for me, since I came in here.  He's been pretty openminded and open for me to ask questions and pick his brain, because he's obviously got so much experience at this level.

"He's almost been like another coach, if I'm honest. We talked about that passing earlier and he's been really good, doing drills with him - he's the passing guru, that's his strength and that's why he's been at this level for so long."

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