The little guy with the big game has been making some gigantic strides for the All Blacks in 2017, writes MARC HINTON.
For a work in progress, Damian McKenzie sure does exude excitement. The stand-in All Blacks fullback, with the diminutive physique, devilish grin and sizzling turn of speed, may still be finding his feet at international level, but is putting on one heck of a show while doing so.
In many ways, at just 1.77m and 78kg, he is the exceptional that proves the rule in the modern power game dominated by large units who move fast, hit hard and like to run over, rather than round, defenders. McKenzie is palpably demonstrating that there is still a place for the small man at fullback, if you have the skills, speed and elusiveness so prominent in his repertoire.
The 22-year-old Chiefs gamebreaker is having a merry old back two-thirds of the Test season, after spending much of the first segment floating somewhere between the periphery and wasteland of the All Blacks.But as the injuries mounted, and Ben Smith’s sabbatical kicked in, he has found himself as the last man standing in Steve Hansen’s fullback pecking order.
That’s seen the born-and-bred Southlander start all six Rugby Championship Tests at No 15 for the All Blacks, as well as the Bledisloe banana skin defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane just before departure for November’s end-of-year tour.
Given that Smith (sabbatical), Israel Dagg (knee problems) and Jordie Barrett (shoulder surgery) all remained in New Zealand, McKenzie was expected to be Hansen’s first-choice fullback for the Tests on tour. But he is also deputising as third-string No 10 in the north, as the national coaches continue to be intrigued by the prospect of him morphing into a supersub capable of covering 10 and 15, à la Beauden Barrett over the tail-end of the Dan Carter era.
‘He should be very proud of what he’s done so far in the black jersey,’ says All Blacks attack coach Ian Foster of a young man who has had to be patient since his All Blacks call-up at the start of the 2016 season. McKenzie was required for duty just twice that year, off the bench against Argentina in Buenos Aires and then as a starter with the second-stringers against Italy in November. But the chances are positively flowing now.
‘It’s clearly been a learning process for him,’ adds Foster. ‘There have been a few new faces in the backline, which has meant he’s probably had to take a little more responsibility than we would have expected. But overall he’s dealt with that really well. He hasn’t been perfect and has made some errors, but he’s the type of player you’ve got to allow to back himself and have a crack at things. He’s on an upward trend.’
The education took a step up in Brisbane when he covered No 10 in Beauden Barrett’s absence, and played the last part of an eventual 23-18 defeat there. The All Blacks remain convinced that, with a season of Super Rugby in that position for the Chiefs (now that Aaron Cruden has departed), he can morph into a legitimate option at 10 and 15 at Test level in the lead-in to the World Cup.
‘You don’t have to be Einstein to figure he would fit that Barrett supersub role really well, as long as he can play 10,’ adds Foster. ‘We know he’s going to spend a bit of time there with the Chiefs, and he’s keen to do that. This is not something people are forcing him into. He has played 10 before, and it’s just a matter of spending more time in the saddle. It’s been a year of opportunity for him, and if he can nail that, particularly with some of the back-three guys we have coming back, it will put us in an interesting spot.’
McKenzie did a heck of a lot more good than bad during seven straight Tests for the All Blacks this year. Sure, there were a couple of errant passes that coughed up tries, one or two misfires under the high ball and a couple of times his size was exposed on the one-on-one tackle. But he crossed for four tries and was at the forefront of so much of what the New Zealanders did positively as they completed a second straight Rugby Championship clean sweep.
His game-clinching try to punctuate a top performance against the Boks in Cape Town was a classic example of what he brings to the table. Replacement David Havili sparked a counter-attack from a deep kick and then flicked a peach of a backhand pass to McKenzie. In an instant the man his All Blacks teammates call ‘Big Jim’ seized the moment, shimmying around one defender, then through two more with a burst of speed, and angled run to the line.
‘He’s definitely got a lot more ticks than crosses,’ says Foster. ‘The fact is every player has strengths and weaknesses. He has come in and defensively been pretty sound, positionally excellent, aerially he’s committed and his skills are very good. Because he does some brilliant things, he gets assessed thoroughly. But if you look at what he did in South Africa under a lot of pressure, he is very, very good on his feet. It’s been a great time for him.’
Adds Hansen: ‘He’s had to be patient. Everyone was in a hurry for him to get there, but I don’t think he was ready until we’ve let him go. I describe him as a fly in a bottle … he’s all over the place. In Brisbane in the rain, our kicking game let us down … Damian at the back always wants to run. He’ll learn from that, which will be good for the team and his career.’
McKenzie could only grin at his coach’s peculiar reference.
‘He’s probably not wrong … sometimes I spend more time running backwards than forwards. It’s just doing the simple things well and not over-complicating things. The work I do leading up to a game has improved a lot, and that has given me much more confidence come game day. I’m able to go out and just play my rugby.’
Asked if that’s when he’s at his happiest, and his best, that smile returns.
‘Rugby is the sort of game where you back your instincts and play what’s in front of you.’
So far it’s an approach that is reaping the rewards for one of the All Blacks’ most exciting prospects.
– This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine