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Beauden Barrett's influence in Damian McKenzie's Tokyo Sungoliath move

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Dan Peled / www.photosport.nz

All Blacks star Damian McKenzie has opened up about his decision to leave New Zealand and pursue a deal with Japanese club Tokyo Sungoliath.

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After months of speculation, Tokyo Sungoliath – renamed from Suntory Sungoliath as part of the rebranding of the Top League to the Japan Rugby League One – confirmed the acquisition of McKenzie for next season in November.

Off-contract with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] at the end of this year, no official statement has been released by the national union about when, or if, McKenzie will return to Kiwi shores in a playing capacity.

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However, the 26-year-old playmaker told the What A Lad podcast, hosted by former Hurricanes fullback James Marshall, that his deal with Tokyo Sungoliath is only for one season and that he plans to re-sign with NZR.

McKenzie added that he will return to New Zealand next May, but won’t be immediately available for the All Blacks, meaning he will return to action via the NPC with reigning champions Waikato, and then the Chiefs in 2023.

“I’m here for the one season, so I’ll sort of be back in roughly May-ish,” he told the What A Lad podcast.

“Then I’ll obviously sign back with New Zealand Rugby and then play [NPC] for the first while because I’m not eligible to play straight away for the All Blacks, unless there’s an injury.

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“Obviously I’m going to have to play some good rugby over here first to be considered in that squad, so then I’ll come back and play for the mighty Strong Arm [Waikato], who had a great year this year.

“Provincial rugby’s fun rugby to play and it’s a level of rugby I actually miss playing. I remember my last two games last year playing for them was some of the most enjoyable rugby I’ve played.

“That’s the plan, and I’ll definitely be back to the one and only Chiefs as well.”

By moving to Tokyo Sungoliath, which is still owned by beverage company Suntory, McKenzie follows in the footsteps of All Blacks teammate Beauden Barrett, who played for the club as part of a sabbatical deal earlier this year.

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During his time in Japan, Barrett helped steer Tokyo Sungoliath to a runner-up finish in the Top League, falling short in the final at the hands of the Saitama Wild Knights, then known as the Panasonic Wild Knights.

Aware that his contract with NZR was due to expire this year, McKenzie told the What A Lad podcast that he was eager to head abroad on a short-term deal, and said that Barrett’s influence helped him turn down other clubs to sign with Tokyo Sungoliath.

“I was sort of looking last year. I was off-contract, so I was looking at opportunities offshore and just seeing what was out there,” he said.

“There were a couple of other clubs that I looked at. Obviously Beaudy had been at Suntory, so I had a talk to him about it. I thought it was a good chance to come over.

“I’d be lying to say the money wasn’t good. It was, so it’s an opportunity to benefit in that way, but also just to try something fresh.

“Obviously I’ve been playing Super [Rugby] for a while now, so [I was looking for] something maybe less physical. It’s here now, so looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.”

Despite filling Barrett’s void in the Tokyo Sungoliath squad, McKenzie said he doesn’t feel the pressure of living up the standards set by the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.

“Obviously Beaudy’s a great player, so being able to, I guess, chat to him about what it was like being able to play over here has been great,” McKenzie told the What A Lad podcast.

“I think, for me, it’s a game style that suits the way I play, so I’m looking forward to getting out and just trying to play that attacking rugby and just try and add my spice to the team with what I can do.

“It’s hard boots to fill, knowing Beaudy’s been here, but it’s going to be fun. I’ve got some good guys around me to play with, so hopefully I leave a good stake in the ground and play some good rugby.”

Some of the those who McKenzie will play alongside at Tokyo Sungoliath include his former Chiefs teammate Tom Sanders, as well as Wallabies stars Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon.

Ex-Blues and Highlanders wing Tevita Li, former Highlanders lock Joe Latta and Australian pair Sam Talakai and Harry Hocking are also present in Milton Haig’s squad, giving Tokyo Sungoliath somewhat of an ANZAC feel.

The 40-test international said he was excited to meet his new teammates, many of whom stay in the same apartment complex that he will live out of once he leaves MIQ next week.

McKenzie’s cousin, ex-Highlanders and Chiefs fullback Robbie Robinson, is also based in Japan, providing the new Tokyo Sungoliath recruit with plenty of familiarity during his offshore stay.

McKenzie hopes that will play its part in allowing him to flourish in League One, where his renowned style of attacking play is expected to stand out when the competition kicks-off next month.

“They play a bit of an attacking brand and everyone’s probably a bit more my size over here, so that’s going to help,” he told the What A Lad podcast.

“We’ve got some great lads at the club as well, which is great. A good few Aussie boys, Tom Sanders has just signed there, too, which is awesome. It’s going to be fun afternoon rugby a lot of the time, which is awesome, too.”

Listen to Damian McKenzie’s interview on the What A Lad podcast below:

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