Damian McKenzie's return to New Zealand confirmed following Japan sabbatical
McKenzie is back in New Zealand after spending the opening half of this year plying his trade for Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the inaugural Japan Rugby League One season.
The 27-year-old’s defection to Japan came after he didn’t sign a contract extension with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] despite the expiration of his existing deal at the end of last year.
Instead, McKenzie signed a one-season deal with Suntory, believed to be worth around $1.5m, and starred as he took the League One heavyweight to the competition final, where they were beaten by the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights in Tokyo last month.
Since then, McKenzie – who finished as the league’s top point-scorer and won selection at fullback in the League One Best XV – has returned to Hamilton after having signed a one-and-a-half-year deal with NZR.
“I really enjoyed my time in Japan, but it’s great to be home among family and friends and I can’t wait to get back on the field and reconnect with teammates and coaches in New Zealand,” McKenzie said in a statement released on Friday.
“I’m passionate about Waikato, the Chiefs and the All Blacks and if I’m lucky enough to wear any of those jerseys again I’ll give it everything.”
McKenzie was absent from the recently-named All Blacks squad to face Ireland next month as he was deemed ineligible for selection by NZR.
As such, he will return to action with Waikato in the NPC, a move that will make him available for All Blacks selection later in the year.
That much is far from a guarantee, though, given the form of uncapped Blues star Stephen Perofeta, who has been named in the All Blacks to provide cover as a first-five and fullback in McKenzie’s absence.
In the meantime, however, McKenzie is simply focused on playing for Waikato, something he hasn’t done in two years.
“It’s been a few years since I pulled on the Waikato jersey, but that’s where it all started for me back in 2014, so it will be awesome to get back amongst it with the lads and represent my province if I’m selected.”
McKenzie is also five matches shy of bringing up his 100th appearance for the Chiefs, and his imminent return for the Hamilton-based franchise excites head coach Clayton McMillan.
“We welcome back Damo with arms wide open. He’s not only a fan favourite but highly respected team member who gives everything of himself on the field,” McMillan said via a statement.
“I’m sure he enjoyed his time in Japan and will have developed his game further by nature of the different style they play up there.
“But it’s great to have him back, he’s a few games off becoming a Chiefs centurion and there’s no doubt he will help us take another step forward as a team next season.”
Likewise, Waikato boss Ross Filipo was similarly optimistic about having McKenzie on deck for the upcoming domestic season.
“Damian is a drawcard player wherever he goes, and it will be great to see him back in Waikato colours and entertaining the Mooloo faithful,” Filipo said.
“He will bring leadership and experience to the Waikato squad and always represents our province with courage and pride.”
NZR general manager of professional rugby and performance Chris Lendrum, meanwhile, added that the acquisition of McKenzie is significant for rugby in New Zealand.
“It’s a positive for rugby in New Zealand anytime a player of Damian’s quality and experience returns to New Zealand, and he will add a lot to the team’s he represents,” Lendrum said.
“He’s refreshed, he’s excited about playing for Waikato and the Chiefs, and he is as passionate as ever about pushing for higher honours, which is great. No doubt fans will be pleased to see him back on the field in whatever jersey he has on.”
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