Damian McKenzie prepares for positional switch
Damian McKenzie is set to spend the next six months playing in Japan’s new League One competition before returning to New Zealand ahead of next year’s test season.
While he won’t immediately be eligible for the All Blacks – as was the case with TJ Perenara this year – a return to the national fold is very much in the plans for the 26-year-old, but it might not be in the No 15 jersey.
McKenzie has shifted between fullback and first five-eighth since he made his professional debut in 2014 but it’s in the former where he really made a name for himself.
From counter-attack and kick-returns, there’s perhaps no better player in the world at finding and exploiting gaps in unstructured defensive lines and McKenzie in full flight, setting up dazzling tries in a Chiefs jersey, has been a common sight over the past six years.
While McKenzie has even been the first-choice fullback for the All Blacks at various stages over the past few years, his semi-permanent position at the back has never lasted too long.
This year, McKenzie was handed the No 15 jersey to kick off the season but come the middle of the All Blacks’ test campaign, Jordie Barrett had well and truly taken hold of the role.
Now, it appears that McKenzie may be eyeing up a more permanent move to No 10, the position where he played his schoolboy rugby.
“I’ve sort of mixed and matched a little bit,” said McKenzie on the latest episode of James Marshall’s What a Lad podcast. “15, I enjoy the freedom of just doing your own thing, which is fun, but I do really enjoy 10 as well because you’re obviously in a bit more control and a bit more in the driver’s seat than you would be at 15. You get more touches on the ball.
“I’d say, moving forward, 10’s the position I want to try and focus on.”
Although McKenzie has dabbled at first five at various times since he first debuted for the Chiefs in the position in 2016, he was primarily used there as a stopgap measure until 2018, when Aaron Cruden departed the Chiefs and new coach Colin Cooper entrusted McKenzie with the reins.
All Blacks star Damian McKenzie has opened up about his decision to leave New Zealand and pursue a deal with Japanese club Tokyo Sungoliath. #AllBlacks #TokyoSungoliath #JapanRugbyLeagueOne https://t.co/GfApzfcxJF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 1, 2021
McKenzie’s effectiveness was dampened with less space, however, and he was shifted back to fullback the following year before an ACL injury prematurely ended his season. The experiment wasn’t revised until this season, with Clayton McMillan giving McKenzie plenty of opportunities at No 10 throughout the Super Rugby campaign, and the now more experienced playmaker flourished in the role.
While McKenzie won’t be with the Chiefs in 2022, instead spending the season representing Tokyo Sungoliath in Japan, he’s expecting to primarily remain playing at No 10 – where Beauden Barrett was enlisted by the Sungoliath this year.
“I think it’s a position I’ll be playing over here in Japan, which will be good fun,” he said.
Although McKenzie has typically suggested that he has favoured the fullback role in the past, Jordie Barrett’s locking down of the position for the All Blacks could have influenced have change of heart. Of course, the pathway to playing No 10 isn’t exactly a free run either, with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga sharing the jersey this year.
“There’s plenty of good 10s around as well,” McKenzie acknowledged. “Two blokes, Beaudy and Richie, they’re top at the moment. They’re good to learn from but tough to get past at the moment.”
The League One season kicks off in early January which means that while the rest of McKenzie’s All Blacks teammates are enjoying a break away from rugby over the New Zealand summer, he’ll be springing into pre-season action as soon he’s free from his two-week hotel quarantine in Japan.
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