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'There's no place like home': Damian McKenzie hints at future

By Tom Vinicombe
Damian McKenzie. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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Although still in the throes of working out the finer details, Damian McKenzie has indicated that he’ll be likely be heading back to the Chiefs for next year’s Super Rugby season.

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With his former contract with New Zealand Rugby coming to an end last year, McKenzie signed a one-year deal with Japan Rugby League One side Tokyo Sungoliath for the 2022 season, which has seen the 26-year-old miss the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific competition this year.

Unlike men like Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and now Patrick Tuipulotu, McKenzie didn’t head to Japan on any sort of playing sabbatical and hadn’t negotiated a new contract with NZR before heading offshore, which means the utility back likely won’t be able to play for the All Blacks until he’s linked up with an NPC side later this year.

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Dan Carter identifies the keys to success for the All Blacks at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
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Dan Carter identifies the keys to success for the All Blacks at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Speaking from Japan, McKenzie confirmed that while nothing’s been signed just yet, a return to the Chiefs for 2022 is the likeliest way forward for the All Black.

“Just working through that at the moment,” McKenzie said. “Still in the process now, looking at the plan at the moment.

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“I’ve been looked after extremely well at the Chiefs. Obviously moved there straight out of school and it’s a team I hold dearly in my heart, even just watching them back home, as much as I’ve loved being over here with the club, Suntory, you do miss the lads back home as well.

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“It’s a club I love playing at. I’m obviously close to playing 100 games, that would be an awesome achievement to bring up alongside a lot of great players who have done that as well. It shouldn’t be a hard decision [to link up with the Chiefs once more], I wouldn’t have thought.”

While the Chiefs would not doubt have loved to have McKenzie on the books this season, the Waikato-based team have been building nicely throughout the season and are currently sitting on four wins from six matches played.

In McKenzie’s absence, the likes of Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Kaleb Trask, Emoni Narawa and Chase Tiatia have shared duties in the first five and fullback positions.

Although McKenzie obviously hasn’t been involved, he says he’s been keeping a close eye on the action from Japan and is looking forward to seeing the Chiefs take on the Blues in what could be a crucial game this weekend.

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“I’ve watched pretty much all their games. The timings to watch the rugby back home is really good and obviously got the Aussie boys here too so we usually tune into the New Zealand games and then watch a few of the Aussie games afterwards.

“The boys are playing really well, I think. I’m pretty impressed with how a lot of the younger guys have stepped up, have got a couple more years experience and just really getting stuck into their work. I think the game last weekend showed that when they scored some great tries with a pretty young outfit there at the end of the game.

“The boys are playing really well and obviously Battle of the Bombays, it’s always a big game against the Blues, but the boys will be up for it and I’m sure I’ll be tuning in and watching them get after it.”

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There has been talk recently that with McKenzie struggling to earn a starting role last year for the All Blacks given the depth in the national side and how the Japanese league suits the pocket-rocket’s style of play, McKenzie might make the decision to remain in Japan. While McKenzie certainly didn’t quash the narrative that he could one day return to League One, he did suggest that he was looking forward to getting back to playing in NZ in the near future.

“I’ve come over to Japan, obviously got here in December, and just loved it,” he said. “Suntory’s a great club.

“Obviously the Japanese people are so welcoming, so respectful, and lucky to have some great foreign lads here as well … And then obviously got coaching staff, Milton [Haig] and Jase [O’Halloran] who are from New Zealand as well. Even the Japanese staff, management, they’re great people. I really enjoy the rugby; afternoon games are awesome. It’s been fun so far.

“I’ve always wanted to come back home, obviously, and you do miss the lifestyle and people back home with family and stuff. Japan’s obviously a place I’d love to come back to at some stage, whether that’s shortly or a little bit later, we’ll soon find out. It’s been awesome so far over here, I’m loving it. But there’s no place like home either.”

McKenzie has clocked up seven appearances and 115 points for the Sungoliath during this year’s Japan Rugby League One season and has been an ever-present selection – barring one week where Covid prevented the 26-year-old from taking part – for the team that’s currently leading the overall standings.

There are just five rounds left to play before the finals get underway for 2022.

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