I had the opportunity this week to sit down with recent Chiefs signing, Damian McKenzie.
When news broke that the NZ U-20 youngster had signed a 3-year deal with multiple time Super Rugby championship side the Chiefs, Damian McKenzie hadn’t even made his provincial championship debut in ITM Cup rugby. McKenzie spent the better part of the season in Chiefs development but never made it onto the pitch in the top grade.
The New Zealand media labelled McKenzie as one of the standout players for New Zealand in the recent U-20 IRB Junior World Championship played on these shores.
Although unsuccessful in winning the World Cup, McKenzie caught nearly everybody’s eye playing at first five and fullback.
“It was a good experience even though we didn’t get the result we wanted it was still awesome to play at home in front of a home crowd and to get a taste of international rugby.”
Shortly after the IRB Junior World Championship the 3-year Chiefs deal was announced, with head coach Dave Rennie expressing his thoughts on how well the “electric” style of McKenzie would fit into the Chiefs side with some notable returns and new signings next season during our interview with him last month.
Rugby is in Damian McKenzie’s blood.
His older brother Marty is currently playing for Taranaki, and his father Brent played for Bay of Plenty, Southland, the Junior All Blacks, and he was also a All Black trialist.
Brothers, Damian and Marty went head to head earlier in the ITM Cup season when Waikato played Taranaki, and on that occasion it was Taranaki who gave Waikato a decent old thumping, and also a game where Damian’s brother Marty played some of the best rugby seen so far in ITM Cup this year.
“It was pretty exciting as it was the first time we had played against each other but unfortunately he had a pretty sharp game” Damian laughed.
A couple of media commentators have noticed McKenzie’s ability to be able to read the game.
Whilst his goal kicking and situational punting was slightly shaky early on in the ITM Cup season, there is simply no doubting that there are similarities to the likes of Daniel Carter in McKenzie’s game, and that is a massive wrap that this young man should be extremely proud of.
Apart from his rugby, 19-year-old Damian McKenzie enjoys playing a bit of golf and kicking back on the PlayStation.
“I am a little big on sports games like NBA 2K” Damian admits.
But McKenzie’s time on the PlayStation is set to be put on the back burner as next years season, the biggest in his young career yet, fast approaches. This blog was lucky enough to be one of the first media outlets to get a sit down interview with McKenzie, and the youngster admits that the Chiefs signing did come as a surprise.
“It was pretty exciting to be given the opportunity with the Chiefs and I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
The Crusaders were keen to sign McKenzie also, but McKenzie is happy with his decision to stay in Hamilton.
“I have enjoyed my time since I have been up here in Hamilton and I have been lucky enough with development. The Chiefs have looked after me really well so I was happy to just build my trade here”.
The young playmaker is simply focused on doing whatever he can right now in his first season with the Mooloos and doesn’t appear to be too worried about the pressure that playing Super Rugby next year will be put upon him. McKenzie will be second string first five to Aaron Cruden, but admits he would he happy to play at fullback, and assist the Chiefs in any way that he can.
“I had a little bit of time with Aaron at the end of the Chiefs season. He is a good leader and so knowledgable so learning off him is pretty special.”
It would be a stretch to say that the last nine months haven’t caught Damian McKenzie a little by surprise, because it only seems like yesterday that he was playing first XV down at Christ’s College. But to a lot of rugby followers, the sudden emergence on the junior international scene and the shortly there after Super Rugby signing was just something that was more a matter of when than anything else.
McKenzie could have ended up playing in his native homeland of Southland, but has brought his talents up north.
As a school prefect and head of house, McKenzie is currently studying at Waikato University doing a Bachelor of Communications in between his rugby, though has had to pull back heavily from that due to his rugby commitments.
“It was purely rugby that brought me to Hamilton” McKenzie says.
Damian McKenzie is not only a great rugby player, but he is a young man with the potential to be one of the best fly halves in New Zealand.