Last Word On Rugby, by Mike Pullman.
Widely-touted as a star of the future, Damian McKenzie has survived his first appearance for the All Blacks and can now continue to grow into his role. Given 30-minutes on the field, McKenzie was able to experience the white-hot heat of test match rugby as an All Black.
The game was already ‘in the bag’ at halftime, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen didn’t wait long to ring the changes. The first backline change was McKenzie, who replaced Ryan Crotty. McKenzie slotted into fullback, seeing the ball and acting well in defence alongside his more experienced team mates, like Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett.
In the process, McKenzie fullfiled a lifelong dream. Every New Zealand rugby players dream–in terms of the bigger Rugby Championship picture, the All Blacks beat Argentina 36-17 in what was an interesting game of rugby; to say the least.
Damian McKenzie Achieves All Black Dream
McKenzie has waited with much patience for his shot in the black jersey. Many say that he should have been selected well before now. But today, away from home and away from all the pressure, McKenzie got his big chance. With Mum and Dad in the stadium, cheering him along (as they have done all his life) the man himself said he was surprised to get as much time on the field as he did.
“Whatever he did tonight, he should reflect upon his first test jersey and be very proud of that,” Hansen told Stuff.co.nz
So, let’s break down McKenzie’s performance:
- He made a couple of good tackles when the All Blacks were pinned on their own try line.
- His eagerness to run at the Argentine attackers wasn’t a surprise, and as expected, McKenzie perhaps looked too eager at times.
- His size difference is obvious, but that has never mattered to McKenzie, and it didn’t in his All Black debut.
McKenzie tested on Debut
Always too hard on himself, McKenzie was clearly disappointed with his sluggish footwork when he was out smarted by the Pumas cross-kick. That led to a try to the Pumas. McKenzie’s defensive game wasn’t the best. When Argentina went to the air with a cross kick, McKenzie ran up to join the All Black defensive line. This left a big gap for the Pumas to run through if they broke through one tackle.
With ball in hand, McKenzie took on the defense twice, but was well marked and taken down in firm tackles. The bravery that impressed so much during Super Rugby with the Chiefs showed in McKenzie’s first outing on the international stage.
Speaking with the media after the game, McKenzie was asked if he felt like he had finally ‘arrived’ in the All Blacks environment.
“I was just excited to get out there and play some footy. It would have been nice to have the ball a bit more, but I’ve never been in this position with the All Blacks and I’m just stoked for the opportunity.”
McKenzie has arrived, and he does have a place in the All Blacks. Not only that, pending a major loss of form and confidence, McKenzie will remain in this side for many years to come.
A Young Man Who Began In The Deep South
Today was a moment that fans of McKenzie would say he deserved back in June during the Steinlager Series against Wales. 2016 has been McKenzie’s year and he has benefited from the added responsibility placed on his shoulders in Super Rugby.
But it all has to begin somewhere.
After growing up in rural Southland, McKenzie first caught the eye of rugby scouts with an impressive season for Christ’s College. Then in 2014, McKenzie was one of New Zealand’s standout players during the U-20 World Cup. Played in his own backyard, the Baby Blacks did not reach the final, but the young fullback was a clear standout.
At the time, McKenzie was studying a Communications degree at Waikato University in between his rugby commitments. Debuting for Waikato in the 2014 ITM Cup season, McKenzie became a professional rugby player and didn’t look back. Midway through that season, it was clear McKenzie possessed some big confidence, due to his allround abilities on the rugby field.
That confidence and natural skill for the game attracted the Chiefs Super Rugby coach Dave Rennie. With a three-year deal signed and sealed, McKenzie made his Super Rugby debut against the Blues in February 2015.
2015 was a year that saw McKenzie go through much change–both on and off the field. On a cold night in Melbourne, fans saw the first glimpse of what would become McKenzie’s trademark ‘smile’. A coping mechanism he developed prior to taking a kick, it has endeared him to many fans.
Interest from Media and Fans alike
With peaked interest from media and fans alike, McKenzie returned to ITM Cup rugby and performed for Waikato through a strong season. Still just 20-years of age, McKenzie captured helped to capture the Ranfurly Shield with Waikato. Whether he knew it at the time or not, the youngster had played a big part in that victory.
McKenzie also represented the Maori All Blacks in 2015, alongside his equally as talented brother, Marty. The younger McKenzie also began a strong friendship with seasoned All Black Stephen Donald during this time. Donald, along with others, have played a crucial role in McKenzie’s ability to carry himself as a professional.
McKenzie Takes His Game To New Level In 2016
McKenzie started in every game of Super Rugby, during the 2016 season. Given goal kicking duties throughout, McKenzie shined at fullback and became a big part of the sides leadership group. When the Chiefs were knocked out by the Hurricanes at the semi final stage, McKenzie just had to ‘sit and wait’ for the All Blacks to call.
Call they did, and in front of his parents on a windy night in Buenos Aires, McKenzie became All Black number 1154. The 21-year old showed signs of the talent he possesses, the usual small mistakes, but all-in-all, fans know there is much more to come.
But for now, McKenzie can rest assured that he achieved a life long dream, one that many said he was too small to do.
“Main photo credit”