Smiling assassin

Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie is a little man with a big game, writes MARC HINTON.

The little smile has become his trademark and, truth be told, his giveaway. Watch for it, because it’s there every time Damian McKenzie lines up for a shot at goal. Just before he launches into his beautifully concise and precise kicking motion, the Chiefs fullback will pause briefly, drink in the moment and then the lips will curl into an unmistakable grin. It’s as if there’s a joke going on here, and he’s the only one in on it.

McKenzie has every right to be smiling, for his play through the first half-dozen rounds of Super Rugby for the Chiefs has been nothing short of sensational.

The pint-sized 20-year-old − who stands just 1.75m and tips the scales at 80kg − has been the New Zealand sensation of the first part of the new season, and his delightfully instinctive, impressively heady play at the back for the Chiefs has him already on the All Blacks radar.

‘He’s got to keep playing well and then we’ve got to make a decision about where we play him,’ national coach Steve Hansen said of the electric McKenzie, who led not only the try-scoring and point-scoring tables through the first six rounds of the season, but was also first in carries and defenders beaten, and second in metres gained. ‘It’s not a certainty, but so far he’s proving to be pretty handy.’

Truth is, the Southland-born, Christchurch-schooled McKenzie has been on the national radar since bursting on to the scene as an 18-year-old in 2014 when he made his provincial debut for Waikato and was New Zealand’s age-grade player of the year. After an even more impressive 2015, when he debuted for the Chiefs and New Zealand Maori and produced a breakout provincial campaign for the Mooloo men, that expectation elevated even further.

McKenzie has not disappointed in 2016 either, and all indications are that an All Blacks call-up is an inevitable part of his future, with the only doubt being whether it will come this year or next. As a flyhalf who is more than capable of playing at fullback, he has some fairly accomplished rivals to wade through. New Zealand’s stock at No 10 is as strong as it has ever been, even with the departures of Dan Carter and Colin Slade to foreign fields, while at No 15 there’s a certain Ben Smith holding court as the best backfield operator in the game.

But no mind. McKenzie has time on his side and for a guy who plays the game at such breakneck speed and with such breathtaking fury, he’s in no dramatic hurry.

‘I just try to take it week by week with my game, and keep making improvements,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘I’m just trying to do what’s best for the Chiefs at the moment and whatever happens after that is all a bonus I guess.’

Back to that grin. Aside from the exhilarating package of skills and the tremendous courage with which he plays, it’s the smile that people notice. Turns out it’s just a coping mechanism he developed with a little help from a sports psychologist at his franchise.

‘I was struggling in my first year at the Chiefs with a bit of consistency,’ McKenzie says. ‘So I guess it was around trying to enjoy the moment in time, and not over-thinking the kick too much. Doing that just relaxes me a bit more. I look like a bit of a clown doing it, but if it works, it works.’

It works all right. McKenzie has taken over the kicking duties at the Chiefs from Aaron Cruden and has shown as much poise taking the big shots at goal as he does with the ball in hand in the open field, when his twinkling feet, tremendous instincts and exciting speed make him a counter-attacking force.

The try he scored early in round five’s big victory over the Force summed up his special qualities − he started a surging 80m move with a delightful shimmy, half-break and pass, handled again around halfway, offloaded beautifully in a levelling tackle, then got up off the deck to take the final pass for one of the scores of the season.

There’s a lot to like about the McKenzie game, but his foremost quality may be the courage with which he plays. In a game that has become increasingly over-sized and overtly physical, McKenzie separates himself with his innate gifts, but is still willing to put his body on the line whenever required.

In the round-two victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch, his most important play on a night when he led everyone in metres gained and defenders beaten, put in two clean breaks, and scored a crucial five-pointer, may have been the try-saving tackle he stuck on giant wing Nemani Nadolo.

Hansen, as he does, has a quaint way of describing the youngster’s primary virtue.

‘If your heart is big enough, you’re big enough. It’s not your size that stops you tackling, it’s not your size that stops you from being brave, it’s what’s under your left nipple, and he appears to have a little bit under there.’

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has certainly seen what he’s needed to make the call to fit Cruden and McKenzie into his frontline XV.

‘He’s a phenomenal player, and he’s made big strides in the past 12 months. He’s certainly an impressive kid and now he’s just got to consistently put performances on the park for everyone to start talking about playing above this level.’

Waikato coach Sean Botherway has been equally impressed.

‘He just wants to get the ball in his hands and attack,’ he told the New Zealand Herald. ‘He embraces what you want as a coach. He listens and he learns. He’s also highly skilled and has that attitude that he will work hard and do everything required to improve … he’s an All Black in the making − no question. It’s just whether it is going to be sooner or later.’

The smart money is on sooner.

– This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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