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The Blues rookie set for debut just weeks after being named in NZ cricket squad

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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There aren’t many players who can switch between international cricket and Super Rugby Pacific in a matter of days, but that’s exactly what Jock McKenzie is about to do on Tuesday.

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The young playmaker has been named on the Blues bench for their first-ever cross-town derby clash with Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium.

McKenzie’s inclusion in the Blues camp is part of an overhaul of personnel forced upon the Auckland-based franchise as a result of their three-day turnaround from Saturday’s 32-25 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

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Plenty of changes were expected as MacDonald looks to rest and rotate his squad in the midst of a challenging run of fixtures brought on by the postponement of matches earlier in the season due to Covid.

The head knock sustained by star first-five Beauden Barrett, however, may have played its hand in the selection of McKenzie, who was named in a New Zealand XI cricket squad to face the Netherlands earlier this month.

A Blues U20 representative last year, McKenzie didn’t get the chance to feature with the bat or ball against the Dutch as he was whisked into MacDonald’s squad following Harry Plummer’s season-ending shoulder injury against the Chiefs three weeks ago.

Having previously been part of the Blues set-up during over the course of pre-season, McKenzie stands as the next cab off the rank while two of the franchise’s three contracted first-fives nurse injuries.

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Primed to play a supporting role behind starting No 10 Stephen Perofeta on Tuesday, MacDonald is excited about what the multi-talented McKenzie has to offer for his side.

“We’ve got young Jock McKenzie, who’s a promising young 10, who’s come onto our bench. He’s a very good cricketer as well,” MacDonald told media on Monday.

“He must be good, he bowled me out in the corridor first ball, so he’s got a future there as well. Talented sportsman, so it’s exciting.

“He’s come straight off the cricket pitch, basically, into the Blues, now he’s on the bench for the Blues, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround for him and hopefully he remembers which game he’s playing this [Tuesday].

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“I think he’ll find out pretty quickly when he gets out on the park.”

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Although he returns to the Blues after having focused on his cricketing exploits in recent weeks, MacDonald has no concerns about McKenzie’s ability to withstand the physicality of Super Rugby Pacific.

“One of the first things we had to do is make sure he was contact-ready because he was with us up until not that long ago – until Queenstown, basically – and then he’s been back into cricket, so then he was in cricket mode and we had to bring him back in.

“He’s been building up with us since Harry got his injury, which was a couple weeks back, so he’s had to learn quick, but he’s a quick learner. That’s why he’s successful at cricket and rugby, and he’s got to where he is at a young age, mature head.”

According to MacDonald, McKenzie’s strong points include his game management skills, long-range kicking ability, bravery, leadership qualities and fitness, the latter of which the Blues boss said was comparable to that of Beauden Barrett’s.

All of those factors, as well as his success as a cricketer, made the youngster an attractive option to include in the match day squad to face Moana Pasifika.

“[He’s] smart, he reads the game well, he’s got a big left foot, he’s very brave. He runs his bronco time similar to that of Beauden, so he’s fit and a natural leader,” MacDonald said.

“Again, he’s young, he hasn’t played a lot of rugby at this level, but I think the way he’s progressed up through the cricket shows his temperament to perform there.

“He’s pretty cool under pressure, so it’s a quick learning curve for him. He’s straight out of the cricket nets and into Super Rugby, which is pretty exciting.”

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He added that McKenzie is able to play both codes at an elite level makes him similar to Jeff Wilson, the All Blacks great who also represented the Black Caps in 1993 and 2005.

“It is a great story. There’s not many players that can continue both at this level nowadays. Normally you have to commit when you’re leaving school, and he’s been able to keep both going up to a later age,” MacDonald said.

“You’re going back to Goldie’s [Wilson’s] sort of age before you had someone who was flip-flopping back between first-class cricket and rugby, so it’s a unique story.”

While McKenzie is yet to fully commit to rugby or cricket, MacDonald is in full support of the rookie pivot’s decision to keep both options open for as long as possible – even if that means he opts to persist with cricket moving forward.

“At the moment, I think he’s trying to keep both options available as long as he possibly can, which is what most boys or men would love to do,” he said.

“Good on him. We encourage him to do that. I think it’s good to have a couple of interests and there’s a lot of research around not specifying too quickly into a sport, and it helps the other sport, and I think that’s probably help get him to where he is now.”

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