It’s business as usual for Damian McKenzie and his Chiefs teammates.
Saturday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final will mark an important footnote in the rugby story that is Damian McKenzie, and there will be much expectation thrust upon the 28-year-old as he pulls that familiar grin at Orangetheory Stadium in what will be something close to the biggest night in his career thus far.
Finally, after what seems like a long time trying, the Chiefs get a legitimate shot at capturing silverware.
“It’s finals week and you can’t hide from that so it’s really exciting,” McKenzie said on Tuesday. “It’s not about changing anything or inventing anything new, it’s just about going about our week in the way we have for the last few games. The boys are fizzed and there’s heaps of energy around the camp.”
For the man himself, it’s been eight long years of toil, slog, disappointment, and something of a refresh as well. The question has always been one of execution. Could McKenzie take all that he does well and use it toward something other than a highlight reel?
It has certainly taken time.
McKenzie has had to study the art of being a professional rugby player since his transition from college rugby star, to prospect for the future, to young All Black, and now to a senior cog in the Chiefs’ fortunes week-in, week-out.
Aspects of the journey have been inherently difficult for the quietly spoken Southlander who, back in 2014, could’ve easily signed for the Crusaders before ultimately choosing Hamilton as his base on a three-year Chiefs contract guarantee.
Because of the way McKenzie plays the game, his popularity has consistently surged, especially amongst kids. Did the talented utility back, whilst also learning to be an adult in a pro rugby environment, expect such notoriety so quickly? Absolutely not.
Who could blame those kids for choosing the Chiefs’ pocket-rocket as their favourite player. It’s easy to be a fan of someone who plays the game the way McKenzie does.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 4, 2021
Something other than the status quo, that’s Damian McKenzie.
A player that can ignite from literally anywhere on the park and do it in a way that provides high entertainment value, that’s Damian McKenzie.
91 Super Rugby caps later, only now does it feel like we might just be seeing the best of what he has to offer, and ironically, it’s not because of the aspects listed above.
McKenzie has been more controlled in his play this season, seemingly comfortable being a distributor, presenting a noticeable tone down in radical decision making in comparison to his earlier years.
The only thing that is close to radical in nature about the 2021 version is the mullet growing on his head.
McKenzie leads the points tally in Super Rugby Aotearoa with 98 in total as the Chiefs head into the final. Crossing the line three times, the clear majority have come from the tee, executing all but a handful of opportunities to put the ball between the posts.
Not once, not twice, but on three occasions McKenzie delivered the fell blow with his boot, coming out the hero.
If you’ve been watching, the lead up to those match-winning kicks off the tee have seen the 28-year-old vividly talk himself into a state of calm. Two claps of the hands and a rub of the forehead, you’re seeing McKenzie telling himself that these are the moments he’s practised thousands of times on the training paddock.
“When you’re in those situations and you’re a kicker, you live for those moments. Obviously, you’re either hero or zero and I’ve been fortunate for a few of them to go over which has been great but there’s things that happen before which people might not always see in the build-up to those penalties and for me, it’s not about changing too much and just going about the process.”
David Havili has been banging on the #AllBlacks' selection door for some time now – but it's his somewhat surprising move to the midfield that could cement his spot in the national set-up. @CrusadersRugby
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 3, 2021
Cynics will argue that the long straight kicks are the easy ones to nail while conveniently ignoring other impressive feats McKenzie has brought to the table this season, particularly when slotting into first receiver on the fly and holding the pass long enough for his outsides to exploit once the gap has opened up.
McKenzie knows the target is on his back, something that has been a maturing process in itself.
Coming back from the devastating ACL rupture in 2019, leaders in the Chiefs side spoke of the expectations being too great in his return year. The form on the paddock showed just that but, clearly, McKenzie came into the 2021 season with a new calmness and trust in the process.
Described as a maverick in his early days by many at the Chiefs, McKenzie’s composure and execution under pressure speaks to the change that has been evident in recent times.
The ability to slow down, read the situation in front of him, and be confident in his decision making as a result.
“I’ve been coming in [to first five] late in the game which I enjoy. People start to get a bit tired so holes start to open up so it’s nice to be able to get the front line on attack a bit more but I’m still enjoying fullback and I’ve got some good guys around me.”
Whether at first receiver, back at fullback, or off the kicking tee, if Damian McKenzie can hold his nerve and come through clutch for the Chiefs once again, he’ll be doing his bit to bring the trophy home.
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