Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Damian McKenzie's decision a blow for Blues

Damian McKenzie. Photo / Getty
Damian McKenzie. Photo / Getty

Damian McKenzie's decision to stay at the Chiefs is a blow to the Blues, who had designs on luring him north with the promise of a guaranteed start in the No10 jersey.

McKenzie was off contract at the end of this season but has decided to stay in Hamilton despite being in the same team as Aaron Cruden, who is likely to be named All Blacks first-five for the June tests against Wales.

The Herald understands the Blues contacted McKenzie's representatives in a bid to tempt him to Auckland to solve a problem position which has dogged them for years.

With Cruden, a co-captain at the Chiefs and a member of the All Blacks' leadership group, blocking his way, the 21-year-old has not been able to consistently play in his preferred position but has been spectacular at fullback for Super Rugby's table-toppers.

He leads the attacking statistics in several categories despite his relatively small 1.75m and 80kg frame, and has an innate ability to play with freedom and yet also consistently take the right option regardless of defensive pressure.

He is also an excellent goalkicker - all qualities the Blues would dearly love in a player driving their team.

Blues first-five Ihaia West, called into the squad as an injury replacement in 2014 and the incumbent No10 since last year, hasn't imposed himself in the position and has, in fact, forced coach Tana Umaga into a compromise whereby he plays Piers Francis at second-five to help with the backline's communication. West performed reasonably well in his team's latest match - a 36-30 victory over the Rebels at Eden Park - but kicked at only 40 per cent and his questionable option-taking was highlighted in the second half when, with the Rebels scrambling on their own line, he elected for a low-percentage grubber kick which killed his team's attack.

With Beauden Barrett committed to the Hurricanes, Lima Sopoaga at the Highlanders, and Richie Mo'unga developing nicely at the Crusaders, Umaga might be forced to take a gamble on youth next year and beyond.

Promising Chiefs halfback and New Zealand sevens player Augustine Pulu is making the move to Umaga's team next year and he and McKenzie could have formed an electric partnership inside attacking heavyweights George Moala, Rene Ranger and Rieko Ioane.

But that won't happen until 2019 at the earliest following McKenzie's decision to extend his contract for two more seasons.

"I'm really pleased with my decision to sign on with the Chiefs for another two years," said Southlander McKenzie, who was born in Gore and educated in Christchurch.

"I've enjoyed the shift up to Hamilton and my time with the Chiefs. The team environment is one of a kind and the wider organisation has been very helpful with my transition and career so far.

"I was keen to commit to the Chiefs for longer because of the high calibre of coaching staff in Rens [Dave Rennie], Straws [Andrew Strawbridge], KK [Kieran Keane] and Barnsey [Neil Barnes].

"They've been awesome in helping develop my game. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season and my future with the Chiefs," said McKenzie.

- NZ Herald

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