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Suntory Sungoliath confirm signing of All Blacks star Damian McKenzie

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/CPS Images/Getty Images)

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Japanese club Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath has confirmed the arrival of All Blacks star Damian McKenzie for the upcoming League One season.

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McKenzie is off-contract with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] in 2021, and a new deal with the national union is yet to be confirmed, meaning uncertainty reigns over when he will return to Kiwi shores in a playing capacity.

The 26-year-old playmaker wasn’t named in next year’s Chiefs squad that was unveiled along with the other Super Rugby Pacific rosters on Monday.

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster reacts to the 40-25 loss to France in Paris
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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster reacts to the 40-25 loss to France in Paris

McKenzie’s departure to Suntory had long been rumoured but not publicly announced until hours after the Super Rugby Pacific squads were revealed, although Chiefs CEO Michael Collins confirmed earlier this year that the franchise’s star man wouldn’t return in 2022.

McKenzie follows in the footsteps of All Blacks teammate Beauden Barrett by signing with Suntory after the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year played for the club in this year’s Top League, which has been rebranded to Japan Rugby League One.

Barrett starred for Suntory during his six-month sabbatical with the club, helping guide the club to a runner-up finish as they fell short to Robbie Deans’ Saitama Wild Knights in the final.

McKenzie won’t be the only player who featured for the All Blacks this year playing in next season’s League One, as lock Patrick Tuipulotu has joined Toyota Verblitz on a sabbatical as part of his deal with NZR.

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Tuipulotu joins Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock as All Blacks to take sabbaticals in Japan in recent years, but, given he is soon to be off-contract with NZR and is yet to re-sign, McKenzie’s move abroad isn’t of that nature.

Confirmation of McKenzie’s departure to Japan comes at the end of a season where he fell behind Jordie Barrett in the All Blacks’ fullback pecking order despite starting the year as the first-choice option in the No 15 jersey.

Since his test debut in 2016, McKenzie has made 40 appearances for the All Blacks and has played 95 times for the Chiefs over the course of seven seasons.

“I am looking forward to joining the Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath in the inaugural Japan Rugby League One competition,” McKenzie said in a statement published on the league’s website.

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“I can’t wait to meet my new teammates and contribute to the Sungoliath culture as well as engaging with the Japanese fans.

“I love attacking rugby and I really look forward to playing an exciting brand of rugby. Off field I look forward to experiencing the Japanese culture.

“I hope to see everyone at full stadiums soon. Arigato.”

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Suntory Sungoliath confirm signing of All Blacks star Damian McKenzie

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