The transformation of Damian McKenzie begins in earnest this Saturday night.

Having played the majority of his Super Rugby career at fullback for the Chiefs, McKenzie starts at first five against the defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.

While former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie often wondered aloud why you would move the best fullback in the world to first five, All Blacks Steve Hansen frequently championed a move from fifteen to ten for McKenzie throughout 2017.

"A little bit like Beauden [Barrett] I think he'll be better suited with the ball in his hand more often at ten," Hansen stated in the lead up to the Rugby Championship test in Cape Town last October, using All Black great Dan Carter as an example.

Advertisement

"Carter wasn't always a first five, he was a second five and we just felt when we moved him to first five that he had more opportunities to control the game."

First five is a position that McKenzie is familiar with, having played there at secondary school, age group and provincial level.

"It's obviously another step up for Super Rugby but I got a little bit of a taste last year in a few Chiefs games," McKenzie is quick to remind.

His most recent starting experience at first five is one that he'd rather forget, but learnt a lot from.

Behind a Maori All Blacks pack that was back-peddling most of the time, McKenzie had very few chances to impress against the British and Irish Lions on a tough night in Rotorua last June.

However, his All Blacks experience has provided plenty of positive lessons that will serve him well in 2018.

"Running the short side attack for the All Blacks means you're getting in a first receiver a lot so clearly not so different to playing at ten and so you can you take little stuff like that on board," McKenzie adds.

Another key area of improvement is his on-field communication, with Chiefs co-captain Charlie Ngatai highlighting the need for the quiet Southlander to be more vocal, a comment that draws that cheeky grin out of McKenzie but also agreement.

Advertisement

"I'm gonna have to find my voice and command a bit more of a leadership role.

"It's obviously a different role from fullback and you're more guiding the team around the field.

"I'm learning as I go and learning off the tens here Marty [McKenzie] and Tiaan [Falcon] as well as getting good advice and learning from my other peers too."

Yet despite all of the attention, the 22-year-old remains very calm and clear about what he needs to do.

"I think it's not about tweaking things too much, just going out and playing your game and doing things a bit smarter than maybe I used to do," the latter comment a grinning reference to aspects of his play that led Hansen to refer to him as a "fly in a bottle".

Nigel Yalden is rugby editor for Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB

Advertisement