Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Small McKenzie making big mark

Damian McKenzie has shown that smaller players can still thrive in rugby. Photo / Getty
Damian McKenzie has shown that smaller players can still thrive in rugby. Photo / Getty

As rugby beats what often seems an inexorable path towards being exclusively a game for the oversized, there is no more reassuring presence than Damian McKenzie.

With legs so thin they'd make perfect candles should he ever fall head first into a birthday cake, he often looks like he's been painted into Super Rugby by a surrealist hoping to be the next Salvador Dali.

Watching McKenzie play should be heart in mouth stuff - a fraught business of peering between the cracks in fingers which are welded to the eyes. It never works out like that, though.

Far from being nerve-wracking, watching McKenzie is one of the best treats Super Rugby has to offer. He's a player who restores faith that rugby can preserve its core principle of being a game for all shapes and sizes.

He's a player who is impossible not to find compelling. There are so many well put together specimens in Super Rugby who can thump and bump; run over and through, but the thrills they provide are cheap and instant.

McKenzie delivers a more sustainable and gratifying proposition because he plays on his wits - one wrong turn up a dead end and he'd be toast. Yet it never happens - each week he torments the opposition, his 80kg frame such a tempting target but no one, so far, has been able to land the knockout blow.

The Southland-born, Christchurch-educated player's courage knows no bounds. His energy, determination and sheer will to force himself into the game are qualities that few possess - certainly not in the same quantity.

And then there is his skill-set. It's a portfolio to admire. His pace is top notch, his footwork is up there with the likes of Ben Smith and Cory Jane and his goal-kicking is about as good as anyone else challenging for All Black selection. Then there is his general reading and decision-making - as instinctive and as effective as Israel Dagg's when the veteran fullback played without a care in the world.

Throw in his bravery and positional versatility and what McKenzie, 20, looks increasingly like is the perfect replacement for Colin Slade.

The All Blacks lost one plucky battler after the World Cup when Slade headed to France, but have potentially found another in McKenzie. The value of Slade was he elevated the benchmark for utility backs. Previously, versatile meant that someone was trusted to cover a few positions from the bench - come on and get by for 20 minutes or so. Slade was different: the All Black selectors had confidence to pick him to start at first-five, wing and fullback. He wasn't a get-by option - he was a genuine challenger for the No10 jersey and also wing and fullback.

McKenzie could be similar. He's been electric for the Chiefs at fullback, but he showed last year with Waikato that his natural place is first-five. That's where he feels most connected and best able to influence.

"The first thing that struck me was that he's a young man that loves what he is doing," says Waikato coach Sean Botherway who got to know McKenzie well in last year's ITM Cup.

"He just wants to get the ball in his hands and attack. He embraces what you want as a coach and what you want him to do, he listens and he learns. He's highly coachable. He's also highly skilled and has that attitude that he will work hard and do everything required to improve. He doesn't temper his game to his body shape and he fronted for us in the frontline of defence when he played at No10."

Botherway, like most astute observers, knows McKenzie is an All Black in the making. The only unknown is whether he'll make it to the national side this year or next.

The All Blacks found room in their World Cup squad for three first-fives last year. If Aaron Cruden hadn't been injured, they might have taken four.

That's the reality of the modern game - men wearing the No10 shirt are going to be physically hammered and with test coaches being notoriously twitchy, they like to have an extended list of options.

Cruden and Beauden Barrett will be All Black coach Steve Hansen's preferred options at first-five for the series against Wales in June. The tougher bit will be working out whether Lima Sopoaga and McKenzie can both be accommodated.

"My understanding is that the All Blacks are normally chosen in the last six weeks of Super Rugby," says Botherway. "Damian will be the first to admit that he'll need to maintain his form all the way through to July and the playoffs.

"He is an All Black in the making - no question. But it is whether it is going to be sooner or later."

- NZ Herald

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