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Damian McKenzie's touted move to Japan puts focus for 2022 squarely on two unfulfilled talents

By Michael Pulman

Trending on RugbyPass

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Just who could step up and take the mantle in the Chiefs backline if their star playmaker heads offshore?

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The Chiefs face an impossible task in replacing Damian McKenzie if rumours of his impending departure to Japan are to be true, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few good candidates on the books.

The challenge is for those candidates to deliver on their potential more consistently than to date, and for two such men this couldn’t ring more true.

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Reports emerged over the weekend that the Chiefs star could be opting for a move to Japan when his contract with New Zealand runs out at the end of this year.

According to Stuff, Suntory could be a desirable destination for McKenzie given his good friend Beauden Barrett played there this season but neither New Zealand Rugby or McKenzie’s management team at Halo Sport have commented thus far.

With a revamped Top League competition in 2022 promising large sums of money, a player with the marketability of McKenzie being a big-ticket name to create hype would be a classy ploy.

It would be a big blow for the Chiefs in particular, but it wouldn’t be permanent either. Let’s also make one thing clear, a stint offshore makes sense for McKenzie at this point in his career, whether that be under sabbatical terms or not.

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Barring a devastating ACL injury which cruelly ruled him out of the 2019 Rugby World Cup; it has been a long slog for the 26-year-old who has barely missed a game of Super Rugby when fit and available.

In the 96 appearances for the Chiefs since debuting in 2015, very few of them have seen McKenzie not remain on the park for the full affair.

That’s some serious minutes the pocket-rocket has racked up over the course of seven – yes, seven – consecutive seasons of Super Rugby and that’s also before you take into consideration his All Blacks minutes.

If the time for a bit of break from the physical intensity of rugby in this part of the world isn’t now, then when? Timing-wise, a 2022 stint also makes sense, allowing McKenzie to (in theory) come back in 2023 just in time for the Rugby World Cup.

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For as big of a blow as it would be to the Chiefs, it would provide a couple of players the opportunity to pick up the proverbial mantle and run with it.

Let’s start with Kaleb Trask.

The 22-year-old would be the obvious candidate to spend more time at fullback, having had just a few consistent appearances in the 15 jersey in between his time at first-five.

The responsibility of being the regular fullback would be timely given 2022 will be the utility’s third season of Super Rugby.

Trask has had the benefit of time to find his feet in the environment and learn the ropes of playing in either position, so McKenzie’s potential departure hands him the chance to prove that he can be a consistent performer in Super Rugby and back up all the promise he has shown a level down in NPC rugby, most noticeably at fullback.

Trask hasn’t exactly delivered on much of that promise at Super Rugby consistently thus far, and if not in 2022, then when exactly?

Another season of mixed results would put Trask firmly in the category of ‘undelivered potential’, and for one of the most talented backs that the Chiefs have on their books, this would again feel like something of a letdown.

It’s an argument that stretches well beyond Trask and should be a keen point of discussion over the off-season at Chiefs HQ. The Waikato-based franchise needs to find its next great player to build its backline around.

Bryn Gatland is clearly the long-term option at first-five, with the only real obstacle to his selections in 2022 either being injury or a lack of form, with the latter seeming unlikely.

Critics of Gatland Jr. in his debut season with the Chiefs forget that it was never a question of form which saw him miss a few selections, but rather a clear and obvious intent by the coaches to have the dual playmaker role.

One can’t help but assume that it was often a coin flip between Gatland or Trask for the 10 jersey during Super Rugby Aotearoa in particular, and when the Chiefs started putting McKenzie into that role as well, it became all the more uncertain for both of his backups as to where they would slot in.

This, of course, is all subject to change depending on the validity of the decision McKenzie is rumoured to have made about his immediate future.

But, for Trask and Gatland in particular, 2022 may well provide the best opportunity yet to deliver on their presence in Super Rugby that has felt lukewarm so far.

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Damian McKenzie's touted move to Japan puts focus for 2022 squarely on two unfulfilled talents

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