Damian McKenzie struck a rich vein of form for the Chiefs through March and April and, as Campbell Burnes writes, he could be the man to inspire the Chiefs to their first Super Rugby title in a decade.
At the start of the season, it looked like Damian McKenzie would be the Chiefs No 15 for much of Super Rugby Pacific.
He was listed at the back, as he still is on their website, and they had ample cover at first five through Bryn Gatland, one of the form No 10s of the NPC, the mercurial Josh Ioane, and the improving Rivez Reihana. McKenzie had worn the No 15 jersey for the bulk of his Chiefs career.
But two factors have changed that: one, it’s best to get the ball into the hands of your chief attacking playmaker more often; and two, the career-best form of Shaun Stevenson in his best position.
Forget what might happen with the All Blacks next year – and, at the time of writing, McKenzie had not yet committed to New Zealand Rugby from 2024. McKenzie is the best fit for the Chiefs right now at No 10. Along the way, he has outplayed the All Blacks incumbents Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, sailed past Stephen Donald to become the all-time Chiefs points-scoring record holder, and racked up 100 games for the franchise he loves. More importantly, the Chiefs at this point sit at 8-0 at the top of the table, with D Mac pulling the strings behind a rugged forward pack and inside a backline bursting with X-factor.
McKenzie has all the requisite skills for a No 10, but he plays unconventionally, especially off second phase play. Like Manly NRL standoff Cliff Lyons running across seeking a Steve Menzies off his shoulder, you’ll find McKenzie running across the face of the defence, normally a no-no, looking for a weak shoulder, a mismatch, a slow forward on the back foot. Then he accelerates like a startled rabbit to score or set someone up. Off set play, he can break on the outside with his pace, a priceless asset. Barrett was the prime exemplar of this at his best. This means his teammates have to be on high alert to get in support or get out of his way.
We can say with some degree of certainty that McKenzie is the Chiefs’ greatest match-winner. Back in 2021, before his one-season sabbatical in Japan, he thrice kicked the winning goal in consecutive games. He’s the ultimate triple threat on attack and has chalked up 33 tries for the franchise since his 2015 debut.
His 2014 New Zealand Under 20s coach Chris Boyd called him ‘special’, and the tries and points flowed from 2016-18 for the Chiefs. Now a more accurate defender than he once was, McKenzie is close to the full package – and when rugby badly needs brilliant players to hold or entice the crowds, why would you not pay to see D Mac in full flight?
Chiefs assistant coach Paul Feeney used to be a 15/10 with an attacking mindset at North Harbour. He and his fellow coaches watch amazed at training when McKenzie rips a 30m pass off his left hand or steps past a defender at pace in traffic.
“He’s next level to what I used to play, that’s for sure. He’s such a complete footballer, he’s got it all. He’s got the comms, the pace, the vision, the skillset, and he’s very hard to defend. It’s working well for him playing 10 for us, especially when you see the vein of form Shaun Stevenson is in right now,” says Feeney.
Furthermore, McKenzie is thriving playing outside his good mate Brad Weber and inside the skilled and vocal Rameka Poihipi, who has been a good foil and voice for the No 10 – not to mention Alex Nankivell, another good communicator, further out.
McKenzie’s style of play can be high risk, high reward. His MVP effort against the Hurricanes last month, for example, was punctuated by a couple of errors.
“He’s off the leash for 80 minutes. What he can do, no one else can do. You take the good with the bad, the odd forced error, but he’ll do eight out of 10 world-class things,” says Feeney.
McKenzie brings a varied attacking kicking game, be it firing in a 50-22, a judicious grubber, or banging a long-range touchfinder or a 50m bomb for a penalty goal. Every kick was on show against the Blues in the Hamilton wet last month in a quite marvellous display. Despite the odd miss, he also ranks as one of the top goalkickers in the country. His goalkicks tend to have a very high trajectory, much like those of Jordie Barrett, as he kicks right up into the ball.
While he has always been indispensable for the Chiefs, the going has been tougher in the All Blacks. McKenzie has chalked up 40 Test caps since 2016, appealing as a squad member with his versatility, but always struggling to nail down a starting berth at 10 or 15. It was only when Jordie Barrett was out with injury in the second half of 2017 that he had an extended run at fullback.
Even 12 months ago, while he was running freely in Japan, there did not seem room in an All Blacks match-day squad of 23 for both Barretts, Mo’unga and McKenzie. That all changed when McKenzie returned to New Zealand rugby. Playing better than he was given credit for with the Mooloos and then standing out for the All Blacks XV, he saw Jordie Barrett switched to No 12. While Beauden Barrett went to the back, it meant one less obstacle to the black jersey for McKenzie.
Will Jordan had not even suited up at the time of writing in 2023, while Stevenson had now nudged his name forward for consideration. Feeney thinks that if you were choosing on form, McKenzie would be in the starting XV somewhere. But even if you were not choosing on form, you’d be tempted to have D Mac at the back or at least No 22.
Not that the man himself is putting the cart before the horse. He’s 28 and has never won a Super Rugby title nor been to a Rugby World Cup. Both are highly achievable goals over the next few months.
“I unfortunately got injured four years ago, so it would be awesome to go to a World Cup. You just have to play good rugby ultimately. I’m a person who takes things week by week and controls what I can control, which is playing good rugby for the Chiefs. If higher honours come, that would be great, but a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs is the goal, and the World Cup would be the cherry on the top,” says McKenzie, refreshed after the bye last month, in which he fitted in a round of golf in Wānaka (he plays off a five handicap and just loves the more sedate game).
Like Weber and Brodie Retallick, two other outsiders who have raised the ton for the Chiefs, McKenzie was not a big fan of the team when growing up.
“Obviously growing up in Southland, the Highlanders were my team. Now I’m a proud Chiefs man. One of the greatest moves I’ve made was leaving home and getting up to the Tron to experience the Chiefs culture,” he says.
He was signed, lest we forget, while still at Christ’s College, a paper-thin whippet with a full range of skills who just had to build his body up a bit. Even now, he reckons he’s 81kg “on a good day”.
The champion Chiefs of 2012-13 used Aaron Cruden as a starter in 36 straight games. Imagine that now? The good news for 2023 Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan is that McKenzie is not subject to All Blacks rest protocols, meaning he can be played for big minutes. Don’t expect him to sit down next month during the playoffs.
McKenzie moved past Donald’s franchise mark of 886 points in the opener against the Crusaders. Playing fullback, funnily enough, against the Waratahs in Sydney, was his 100th for the team, beating his good mate Anton Lienert-Brown, stranded on 99, to the milestone. McKenzie was honoured at the next Chiefs home game, against the Blues, when it all went right for him.
“I’ve got a very supportive family and group of mates and it was a proud moment to play 100 games for your club, doesn’t matter which club you’re at.
“As for passing Beaver’s mark, I scored a couple of meat pies and I kicked a few goals and the points ticked away. It was quite a cool moment. I didn’t really know about it coming into that weekend. I’m sure someone else will pass it one day, but I’ll enjoy that,” he says.
Do those encounters with Barrett and Mo’unga get the juices flowing?
“Whenever you play against world-class 10s like Richie and Beaudy, you love going up against the best to test yourself, but it’s never a personal battle. You have to be calm, do your job well and not get sidetracked.”
We know he is keen to play 10, get the ball in his hands and be the game-driver the Chiefs need him to be, but finding the right balance between passing, kicking or running is something that only comes with time in the hot seat.
“The last thing your team needs is for you to be buried at the bottom of a ruck because you carry the ball to the line all the time. It’s about making the right decisions on when to have a crack and playing for territory.”
McKenzie seems to have that balance sorted judging by his 2023 form. But he knows the Chiefs must keep producing and be mentally tough.
“We don’t want to be a team that ebbs and flows. We want to be a consistent team that keeps getting better each week,” he says. That aim could easily apply to him as an individual.
Back in 2020, Rugby News rated McKenzie as the Chiefs’ greatest ever No 15. Now he is playing well enough to be in the conversation for the greatest ever No 10. If he stays healthy, he may just drive them to that elusive third title.
McKENZIE FOR THE CHIEFS
2015: 16 games/41 points
2016: 17 games/199 points/10 tries
2017: 17 games/140 points/6 tries
2018: 15 games/177 points/6 tries
2019: 7 games/81 points/2 tries
2020: 12 games/107 points/1 try
2021: 11 games/134 points/5 tries
2023: 8 games/86 points/3 tries
Totals: 103 games/965 points/33 tries
Starts: 66 at 15, 29 at 10, 8 as sub
*Stats correct to April 28
Subscribe here to get future Rugby News issues delivered to your door.