The Big Read: Rugby's hottest property

By Kris Shannon

Chiefs' full back Damian McKenzie (C) scores a try against the Jaguares. Photo / Getty Images.
Chiefs' full back Damian McKenzie (C) scores a try against the Jaguares. Photo / Getty Images.

The smile has captured the most attention. The atypical grin at the top of his mark, widening with every jeer or whistle raining down from the stands.

But of equal interest is the expression on Damian McKenzie's face after the ball has left his right boot and, invariably, sailed between the sticks. With the job done, the light leaves his face and attention is immediately switched to the next towering kick to corral, or the next imperceptible hole to puncture.

While his accuracy off the tee provides ample evidence why the Chiefs have handed McKenzie the goal-kicking duties ahead of Aaron Cruden, his determination and his temperament shows why the 20-year-old will be unbowed if invited to join his teammate in black before the year is complete.

And the inevitability of that outcome has been impossible to escape so far this season. By any measure, McKenzie has been among the very best in Super Rugby. His elevation to the All Blacks appears a matter of time.

But if that smile is, in his words, a way to relax and unburden himself of the pressure that can crack any kicker, the first five-turned-fullback employs a similar technique to deflect outside attention or outsized praise.

Ask McKenzie about his exploits, the grin is flashed and the boy born in Invercargill exhibits a deeply abiding southern inclination, one unlikely to be overawed in the international environment.

His competition-leading six tries? "A few meat pies," McKenzie insists.

A season that has seen him rank near the top of every attacking statistic? "I guess things aren't going too badly."

The possibility of continuing an outstanding campaign by swapping his black Chiefs jersey for one with a silver fern adorning the chest? "I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. If that was to be the case, that would be pretty awesome, but we'll just wait and see."

Considering what McKenzie is accomplishing, that waiting game will reap only one result. Having last season hinted at his brilliance while deputising for the crocked Cruden, those hints have become cries ringing louder than a cowbell.

Despite playing a position that takes second billing in his personal preference, McKenzie has sparked an electric attack that's stunned every opposition encountered, stepping and flicking and busting its way to the top of the competition.

McKenzie leads all fullbacks in metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten. In some categories, it's not particularly close. His ability with ball in hand is the most thrilling sight in Super Rugby, turning Chiefs games into appointment viewing and rendering defenders as accessories rather than antagonists, increasing the degree of difficulty, as if to accentuate the quality of a run, without really getting in the way.

"I'm really enjoying my time at 15," McKenzie says. "I've been lucky enough to score a few meat pies and get my hands on the ball a lot. But I think that's just the game plan we play; it allows me to do that and I'm really enjoying my time back there."

It's hardly as if that positioning on the field is perpetual, though. Part of the reason the Chiefs have trumped almost every defensive plan has been the versatility of McKenzie and Cruden in combination, blurring the lines between the customary roles required from a fullback and a first five.

The pair inject themselves at different points in the attacking line, take turns to receive the ball from the ruck and leave opposition sides struggling to tame a two-headed playmaking monster.

"I think it's going quite well so far," McKenzie says of the partnership. "Our game plan allows us to both get into first receiver and jump around a bit so I think it's going well. And it's awesome to learn off a guy like Cruds. He's world class."

Given Cruden - for the first time, at 27, eyeing an open path to the All Blacks' No 10 jersey - also has reason to hope his apex is yet to arrive, McKenzie will likely spend a few more seasons under that tutelage yet.

And that education offers a couple of benefits. First, McKenzie's pedigree at pivot and performances at fullback coalesce to ensure he's an intriguing option off the bench for Steve Hansen, a role in which Beauden Barrett has provided match-winning value. And second, it allows McKenzie an ideal learning environment, watching Cruden closely in preparation for the possibility of one day replacing him.

"[First five] has always been my No 1 position but, at the moment, I'm really enjoying my time at 15, and that might be where I stay," he says. "But I'm just trying to play the best I can for this Chiefs team. I guess, at the moment, things aren't going too badly, so hopefully I can keep on playing some good footy throughout the year."

That means, of course, more of the thrilling breaks, more of the quick hands, more of the shrewd passing. But it also means more of the type of tackles that cut down Nemani Nadolo in competition's opening round in Christchurch, when McKenzie upended a man who outweighs him by some 50kg.

His courage in defence has drawn almost as much acclaim as his attacking feats and, again, this is another area where McKenzie's attitude will encourage coaches at a higher level. After all, his defensive prowess didn't come naturally.

"When I first came to the Chiefs, my defence wasn't up to a very high standard so it was something I really needed to work on," he says. "Obviously being at 10, they target you a lot, especially when you're my size, so it was something I had to be able to do."

The same could initially be said of his goal-kicking but, with Cruden coming back into the side after a long injury lay-off, McKenzie could have been forgiven for deferring to the senior pro and relinquishing the task.

Instead, his precision has limited Cruden to only four attempts from the tee this season.

McKenzie might have experienced an off night in last week's romp over the Force but, when the tension has been raised, he's also nailed a fair few important kicks to clinch narrow roads wins in the hostile surrounds of Christchurch and Buenos Aires.

All the while, doing it with that ever-present smile, a feature that could soon be gracing rugby fields across the country.

"It helps me relax and just enjoy that moment," McKenzie says. "It just motivates me and gets me up for the kick, and the feeling when it goes over is pretty nice."

Even if, once the flags are raised, that smile quickly fades, replaced by a steely resolve that looks set to carry McKenzie to the top of the game.

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