All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie has successfully returned from a serious knee injury during the Chiefs’ first Super Rugby pre-season clash on Friday.

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The Hamilton-based franchise fell 26-19 to the Blues in blistering conditions in Waihi, but the 20-minute cameo appearance of McKenzie from the bench is a significant positive new head coach Warren Gatland can take out of the encounter.

It’s the first time the 24-year-old has taken to the field since rupturing his ACL against the Blues in Hamilton nine months ago, which also resulted in him missing last year’s World Cup in Japan.

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“I was really excited to get out there, it was a beautiful day for it. It’s been a long time coming but it was just nice to get a bit of early ball and early contact,” McKenzie said post-match.

“I’ve done a lot of work since my injury, a lot of rehab, and it’s come back pretty strong.

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“Obviously my first real injury, so it was a mental challenge to come back, and it really puts some perspective on what it’s like to be injured and watching from the sideline, which was tough. But, look, it made me more hungry to come back.”

Gatland, who made his debut as Chiefs head coach after moving back to New Zealand from Wales late last year, was impressed by McKenzie’s showing, but will remain cautious with how he handles reintroducing his star man back into full-time action.

“He looked confident,” Gatland said. “We just wanted to give him 20 minutes to get out there.

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“You can see what sort of impact he’s going to have in a few weeks when he starts having some more game time and he starts getting aerobically fit. So we’ve just got to make sure that we’re smart and look after him.”

McKenzie played all 20 of his minutes at fullback, which is where the 23-test international expects to stay throughout the upcoming season despite his ability to play at first-five.

“I’m focused on 15 at the moment and trying to cement a spot there if I can focus on that and come into 10 when I need to that will be the ideal situation.”

The Chiefs’ pre-season rolls on next week when they play an internal squad match against each other, while the Blues will return to Auckland to host the Hurricanes at Takapuna Rugby Club’s Onewa Domain on Friday.

The Chiefs and Blues will then kick-off the 2020 Super Rugby season when they meet at Eden Park on January 31.

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