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'It was an easy decision': Damian McKenzie opens up on Japan move

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

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All Blacks star Damian McKenzie says “it was an easy decision” to sign with Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath for the upcoming Japan Rugby League One season.

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It was confirmed late last year that McKenzie, who came off-contract with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] at the end of 2021, had signed a one-season deal with the Japanese juggernauts.

In doing so, he replaces All Blacks teammate Beauden Barrett as the club’s marquee signing following his stint with the side during the 2021 Top League campaign.

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Speaking to Japanese media at his arrival press conference in Tokyo late last year, McKenzie said it was a no-brainer to join Suntory after being encouraged to do so by Barrett.

“I had a lot of conversations with Beaudy about the club and he had nothing but good things to say about the Sungoliath team. They’ve got some great players, some great management,” McKenzie said.

“It was a really cool club and a cool experience he had over here, and he encouraged me to try to come over and play here, and he said the way the rugby’s played over in Japan, it’ll suit the way I play, so he was very helpful with me making my decision to come over to Japan.

“He had great things to say about the club, so it was an easy decision once I got the opportunity to come over.”

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Similarly to Barrett, McKenzie is well-equipped to succeed in League One, where his high-tempo style of play should flourish on Japan’s fast tracks in matches where physicality isn’t as prevalent as it is in Super Rugby or at test level.

McKenzie admitted the fast and free-flowing nature of Japanese rugby, which complements his small stature, was a key reason behind his decision to link up with Suntory.

“It’s not much of a secret. I find it more of a challenge than anything, being smaller than everyone else. I find it a challenge to step up and try and not look out of place in those big games,” he said.

“For me, I’ve got to play a different style of rugby which allows me to evade contact or those big, physical collisions, so I work on that all the time.

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“Obviously in Japan, the rugby’s very fast over here, so I think it’s a game style that will suit the way I play.”

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That will be music to the ears of the Suntory faithful, who will be eager for their team to make amends for their runner-up finish in last year’s competition, where they were beaten 31-26 by the Saitama Wild Knights in the Top League final.

McKenzie is equally as keen to return to New Zealand with a League One champions medal around his neck, something of which Barrett couldn’t achieve during his time abroad.

“I watched a lot of their games last year with Beaudy obviously playing for the team, and I think, like I said, the rugby’s played over here, it’s quick, it’s how I like to play, so it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when I was going to come over to Japan,” McKenzie said.

“I thought this year, this season, was a great time for me to come over and experience the Japanese rugby, the Japanese culture, so it’s a place I really enjoy coming to and, so far, I’ve had a great time and I’m sure there’ll be some great memories.

“Obviously the goal for the year is to win the new League One championship, so we’ll be striving for that.”

The 2022 Japan Rugby League One season kicks-off on Friday, with McKenzie and Suntory beginning their campaign against the Toshiba Brave Lupus at Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday.

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