Lightweight has been a thrill to watch but All Black selectors may decide he needs time.

There's just the one name that most Super Rugby followers will be listening out for tomorrow morning when the All Blacks squad is named. And that's Damian McKenzie.

The 21-year-old has been a compelling force this year. Earlier in the season, he was the man who could do everything: he jigged and whirled, he caught high balls, he tackled men seemingly twice his size, scored tries, kicked goals, found holes and threw miracle offloads.

There wasn't a better option to watch than McKenzie - the theatre made that little more piquant by the lurking fear of what might happen should he steer his 80kg directly into oncoming traffic.

It was David versus Goliath on a previously unknown scale and on the basis that everyone loves an underdog, rugby had a new champion who was thrillingly different. Inevitably, drums began to beat about an All Blacks call-up for McKenzie.


The All Blacks have long been able to found their excellence on convention and enhance it with innovation, and few players have been as out of the box as McKenzie.

But while the All Blacks are the people's team, the individuals who make it there are not always the people's choice. Mid-season, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could hardly deny that McKenzie had piqued the selectors' interest.

But if the All Blacks were inclined to see McKenzie in their probable 32 six weeks ago, they have since been given significant reason to caution against that.

A decision that was shaping as relatively easy to make has probably vexed the panel and potentially been the one with which they have wrestled the most in these last few weeks. A couple of things will have troubled them.

Firstly, McKenzie's decision to stay with the Chiefs for another two seasons, rather than move to the Blues, is not one the coaches would have encouraged had they been given any say.

The selectors don't get involved in helping players choose their Super Rugby team, but experience has shown Hansen that those players who are bold and definitive tend to benefit career-wise.

27 May, 2016 10:24am
3 minutes to read

Colin Slade was faced with a similar choice to McKenzie in 2010: stay with the Crusaders where he would be a utility and bench option behind Daniel Carter, or shift to the struggling Highlanders where he would be the regular first-five.

Slade shifted and it was the making of him. If McKenzie is going to become the world class No 10 that he aspires to be, he has to learn his craft in the role - something that is hard to see happening at the Chiefs where Aaron Cruden's grip on the jersey is iron-like.

Of more immediate concern will have been McKenzie's growing belief that he has to make every play memorable. Getting the balance right between risk and reward appeared to be a natural gift at first. In recent weeks, though, McKenzie has lost a little perspective and reacted to wiser defences by taking ever greater risks.

Possessing such a mindset should not be considered terminal to his ambition of being selected tomorrow. It will, however, have forced the selectors to ask whether McKenzie's time is now.

Would it make sense to pick him this June and begin the process of getting him used to the physical and mental demands of being an All Black, while trying to instil in him the need to be both patient and conservative without dulling his youthful exuberance and natural talents?

In a 32-man squad, they can pick McKenzie and not necessarily put him on the park against Wales. He'd become a longer-term project - work directly with skills coach Wayne Smith with a view to giving him his first cap later this year, possibly against Italy in Rome.

This would be balanced against the alternative option of deciding McKenzie is not quite ready. McKenzie, longer term, will be a first-five who can cover fullback, but right now the All Blacks are only considering him as a fullback.

With Ben Smith and probably Israel Dagg in the mix, maybe the selectors will decide someone such as James Lowe offers more than McKenzie.