Damian McKenzie coy on future plans amid Top League rumours
McKenzie fronted media at the All Blacks’ hotel a day after they arrived in Dunedin ahead of their clash against Fiji at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday and was tight-lipped about where his future lies next season.
“I’ve got no update on that at the moment,” McKenzie said. “I’m still working through that stuff. For me, I’m solely focused on this series and moving forward for the rest of the year.”
He added: “I’ve got no update on it. I’m still working through it, whether it’s here or elsewhere.”
Reports first emerged last month that the 26-year-old playmaker was considering a sabbatical move to Japan on a deal similar to the ones used by McKenzie’s All Blacks teammates Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and TJ Perenara this year.
With McKenzie’s current three-year deal with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] set to expire this year, a sabbatical clause could be included in his next contract with the governing body.
Such a move would come as the Top League looks to revamp itself to become a fully professional, three-tiered competition whereby clubs will have large sums of money to attract the game’s best talent.
That much has been reflected as recently as Monday, with NTT Communications Shining Arcs confirming that controversial former Wallabies star Israel Folau has signed with the club ahead of the 2022 season.
Losing McKenzie, regardless of whether it is on sabbatical or a permanent deal, would be a hefty loss for NZR, though, given the 28-test veteran is beginning to develop into a world-class prospect.
After starring for the Chiefs throughout the Super Rugby season, where he almost single-handedly guided them to the Super Rugby Aotearoa final, McKenzie shone for the All Blacks in Saturday’s 102-0 thumping of Tonga in Auckland.
Although he started at fullback, McKenzie flitted between the backfield and as a first receiver as he made numerous fine touches to end the match with an impressive three try assists and a try of his own.
While the sub-standard quality of opposition may have made it easy for McKenzie to flourish at Mt Smart Stadium, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster made note of his star man’s impact shortly after the match.
Controversial ex-Wallabies star Israel Folau is set to return to rugby union after signing with Japanese club NTT Communications Shining Arcs.https://t.co/abKKpl4tan
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 5, 2021
“I was actually quite pleased with Damian. He looked calm. I think in the last few months his decision making at the back’s been really accurate,” Foster said.
“He’s gone from being the guy that just did the dazzling runs and getting some wrong to now he’s distributing, he’s kicking well, he’s come in and gives us that two-sided attack that we love to have. I thought he should be pretty happy with what he did.”
With fellow star Jordie Barrett also vying for the fullback spot in the All Blacks starting lineup, many are expecting a tantalising clash between McKenzie and Barrett over the coming weeks.
In order to keep his place in the No. 15 jersey, McKenzie is looking to continue to build his playmaking skills from two of the best in the business in the form of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.
“It’s been great to lean off them and obviously that dual playmaker role has probably been a bit of a focus for us,” McKenzie said.
“Whether it’s No. 10 or No. 15, they have similar skill sets. I’m happy just to keep pushing Beaudy and Richie and learning off them too.
“I enjoy it [dual playmakers]. I’ve played a little bit at No 10 and No 15 this year. Being able to jump into first receiver when I can is great. The coaches give you a licence to be free around that.”
With both Foster and All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod indicating everybody within the squad will get an opportunity throughout this test window, it remains unclear whether McKenzie will be reinstated in the match day side against Fiji.
That will become clear on Thursday, though, when Foster names his side for the second test of the 2021 campaign.
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