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'It does take its toll': Damian McKenzie reflects on 'long' season

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

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For the bulk of the All Blacks, their travelling is done for the year. After undertaking a mammoth 15-game season and playing the last 10 matches outside of New Zealand, the bulk of the All Blacks have returned to NZ and are finishing off their mandatory quarantine. For Damian McKenzie, however, the travel is still only just beginning.

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McKenzie is currently in hotel isolation in Japan but will shortly be running out for Suntory Sungoliath in the newly minted League One competition.

Speaking on the latest episode of former Hurricanes utility back James Marshall’s What a Lad podcast, McKenzie reflected on the lengthy season, where the All Blacks were criticised for some less than impressive performances against Ireland and France to round out the year.

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“It was a big tour, it was long,” he said. “We ended up [playing] 15 tests throughout the year and we won 12 of them. People easily forget those games after a couple of losses.”

“Ireland and the French team, they’re great sides. It’s probably a good thing for us. It’s a good thing for us to learn how we can get better with a couple of losses. It’s good how competitive world rugby is. The teams are so close and tight now.”

“It was a fun tour but you could definitely tell at the end of it the boys were looking forward to getting home. It’s a long time away from family for a lot of those guys, particularly [the ones with] kids as well.

“But we had some fun. Aussie was good fun, played plenty of golf, went to the [NRL] Grand Final and then jumped on the plane over to the UK. We went really allowed out of our hotel that much but we sort of made the most of what we could do.”

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While the tour went relatively smoothly off the field, it was still a struggle remaining in a tight bubble throughout the better part of three months.

“You take for granted when Covid wasn’t here, you could get out of the hotel and go for a walk around but you were pretty confined to the team environment the whole time, you couldn’t really escape it. It does take its toll but the team itself and the coaches and management are pretty good at recognising that and giving us time to ourselves when we need it.

“It is tough. When you’re in that camp and you’re under that pressure every week, it doesn’t matter what team you play, regardless of what team it is, whenever they play the All Blacks, they come out of the blocks flying. If you don’t win by a certain amount of points, you haven’t played that well or if you lose, you’re under the scope for the whole week. It is pretty daunting, the whole pressure and trying to escape it can be quite hard, particularly when you can’t get out and about and being confined in our bubble. It is definitely tricky, I’d be lying if I said you don’t have times where it’s hard to escape.”

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With Jordie Barrett taking over as the first-choice fullback this year, McKenzie chalked up limited minutes for the All Blacks, earning just two starts on the end-of-year tour – against test rugby lightweights USA and Italy.

Still, the 26-year-old savoured any opportunity to pull on the black jersey.

“I got a couple of opportunities which went not too bad,” he said. “There was the one against Italy which probably wasn’t as great as I would have wanted it to be. It was one of those lessons. All times I got a crack, I tried to rip in and make the most [of it]. A couple of times I ended up on the wing, which was interesting. I was just happy to get on wherever.”

McKenzie also had plenty of positive things to say about his primary competitor for minutes, Barrett, as well as the crop of other young players breathing down the senior operators’ necks.

“[Barrett] had an awesome year, eh? Clutch in a few games where he kicked us to win the game. He’s just so reliable. Obviously over in the Northern Hemisphere, they play a lot of kicking game and a lot of aerial stuff which he’s a gun at. He was playing great.

“There’s still guys coming through the whole time. It’s good, it creates good competition throughout the team, but you’re never resting on your capabilities of what you can do, you’ve always got to play well and that starts with your training too. If you train like a muppet, it’s not going to help your case either. You’ve got to be pretty switched on during the week and then once the game comes around, make sure you’re performing as well. There’s plenty of competition, it’s good though, a good competitive rivalry.”

McKenzie will return to New Zealand in May next year and link up with Waikato for the NPC.

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