Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Rugby: What's behind the Damian McKenzie smile?

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images.
Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images.

Will the Damian McKenzie smile catch on?

McKenzie certainly has. Steve Hansen mentioned utility back McKenzie, unprompted, in a radio interview even though the All Black coach said there won't be as many genuine new faces in the test squad as imagined despite the mass departure of star veterans.

"He's got plenty under the left nipple," Hansen reckoned, in typical Hansen-speak, about the undersized McKenzie's heart for the battle.

McKenzie is the twinkle toed magician, a playmaking fullback but also a test prospect in a quality queue lining up at first five-eighths. Most simply put, he is a lethal strike force, brave on defence, and absolutely fantastic to watch.

The 20-year-old Southlander's mercurial game isn't just bringing smiles to other people. He's bringing his own smile, a set part of his goalkicking routine, to the world.

While some goalkickers tense up like they've just received a tax bill, McKenzie looks as though he has just got a load of tax back. A crinkly smile, accompanied by a twinkle in the eye, spreads across his face before he moves in to strike the ball. It's working a treat, with the rookie having replaced Aaron Cruden - the inside runner for the test No. 10 jersey - as the Chiefs chief goalkicker.

McKenzie told Stuff last year that the smile helps him relax during his kicking routine, and that things he sees in the crowd influence his good humour.

He credited the Chiefs' sports psyche David Galbraith, whose other athlete clients include BMX star Sarah Walker, for coming up with the smile idea.

But Galbraith reckoned he had virtually nothing to do with it when contacted by the Herald shortly after the Chiefs had dismantled the Force in Hamilton on Saturday night.

Galbraith said the smile reflected McKenzie's inner love for playing rugby and taking goal kicks, and that this sort of internal force was the key to top level sporting success.

Unfortunately, professionalism "sucked the life out of sport sometimes".

"Damian is an exceptional young man with great values, a deep spirit and a zest for life," said Galbraith, who has been with the Chiefs for eight seasons.

"And I've seen a huge shift in the mental side of things. Gone are the days when players thought 'there must be something wrong with me' for seeing a sports psyche.

"The young players coming through see the mind as a critical skill. They are already taking care of that early in the pre-season."

Even younger minds will be influenced by McKenzie's kicking drill - expect to see little smiles at a park near you, and coming through the ranks.

Galbraith said: "Damian might be on a porch in 20 years time thinking 'I brought that to Super Rugby'. That would be great."

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