Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Rising Chiefs' star is wise to stay where he can wait his chance

Damian McKenzie's decision to turn it down makes sense to a certain extent. Photo / Getty Images
Damian McKenzie's decision to turn it down makes sense to a certain extent. Photo / Getty Images

As Damian McKenzie takes an increasingly prominent role in this year's Super Rugby competition, it gets harder to keep at bay thoughts about when, where and how he will end up playing in his favoured No 10 jersey.

His decision to re-sign with the Chiefs for another two seasons only intensifies the relevance of those questions as, by staying in Hamilton until at least the end of the 2017 campaign, McKenzie is signalling that he's not necessarily in a rush to establish himself as a specialist first-five.

Some may feel he's made the wrong choice, that rather than compete with Aaron Cruden for the Chiefs No 10 jersey he should have taken the Blues' offer. If he shifted, he'd become the player around whom the franchise would build themselves. He'd play at first-five every week behind an improving pack and in tandem with halfback Augustine Pulu, who will arrive next year.

It was no doubt tempting for McKenzie, who is 21, to consider a shift, give himself the challenge of directing a team at the highest level, learn the craft of tactical control and game management and to effectively go head-to-head for an All Blacks spot with Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga.

His decision to turn it down makes sense to a certain extent. His ticket to the All Blacks is, for now, his outstanding skill-set.

He's a brilliant rugby player and that's enough for the All Blacks. They can see what a talent he is; that he can pass and catch. They can see he can run, find space, use the ball, kick and tackle. He's brave and clever, bold and intuitive.

That's enough for them to pick him and most likely gently slide him into the fray this year. Much like Barrett did in his first year, McKenzie may pick up a few appearances off the bench - get a little taste, probably at fullback, for the pace and physicality of the international game.

But it will be only a little taste because Barrett offers much the same but with experience and leadership qualities. There probably isn't going to be room for both Barrett and McKenzie in a match day 23 if Cruden is fit and the question then becomes, how does McKenzie change the pecking order?

The answer is to play regularly at first-five. At some stage that has to happen.

The All Blacks won't act as a first-five development school. Whoever they pick will have proven, role-specific qualities.

Being a gifted footballer gets McKenzie into the squad, but not always on to the field. He's decided that it's better to wait for his chance at the high-flying Chiefs than to jump to the less certain world of the Blues where there will be instant positional gratification.

It's an understandable and justifiable career move to stay where he is as long as he can remain patient.

- NZ Herald

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