By Michael Pulman of RugbyPass.com
There is nothing quite like game week for Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie as he reflects on putting in the hard yards during Covid-19 lockdown to ensure match readiness for Super Rugby Aotearoa.
If their recent history against the Highlanders is any indication, the Chiefs should expect themselves to be involved in something of a humdinger when Super Rugby Aotearoa finally kicks off on Saturday.
For McKenzie, someone who is no stranger to performing under the spotlight, Saturday's clash also provides the first real stress test of his intense fitness efforts during the lockdown period.
The same can be said for every athlete involved in this unique, New Zealand-only comp. But for the Chiefs, McKenzie is not just any athlete, he's an integral part of how one of the most exciting backlines in Super Rugby operates.
Furthermore, the man holds himself to a standard representing such.
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Talking to RugbyPass, McKenzie reflected on putting in the hard yards during lockdown in a bid to keep himself fit with a goal of maintaining the same level of performance which has seen him frequently play for the full 80 minutes in Super Rugby.
"I wanted to maintain the same level of fitness and strength otherwise you have to play catchup when you come back", McKenzie said. "Right now I'm in pretty good nick but match fitness is a different thing so it will be pretty intense on Saturday night."
During the lockdown, it was all about the runs down the road, time on the watt bike and working hard in the homebuilt gym for McKenzie. Alongside his good mate Anton Lienert-Brown, the two motivated each other to keep at it while fighting the boredom of being confined to the house.
It's all a showing that isn't unfamiliar from McKenzie, his passion and commitment to the craft is matched by few.
On any given training day, McKenzie is typically one of the first to arrive and last to leave. Always staying back behind for an extra kick at goal or to practise his role in a specific set play, it's clear that the finer details of every aspect in his control take the highest level of importance for McKenzie and it has been a great marker of his success since bursting onto the professional scene six years ago.
Since coming back into camp in mid-May, McKenzie impressed with a personal best on the bronco but Chiefs coaches were cautious not to let the team rush back into full intensity training too quickly.
The early focus was on seeing just where each player was at after the month-long lockdown period where individual fitness wasn't monitored as closely. In that sense, it was every bit the same as your typical pre-season.
What is ahead will test the Chiefs, and their fellow four New Zealand franchise opponents, to their very limits with each game now coming close to matching test levels of intensity. That is by nature what the New Zealand derby-matches have become hailed as by the players themselves, and they're by far the most popular choice for viewers.
For a leading cog in the Chiefs backline, McKenzie expects the brutal challenge ahead and says that it will be important to get straight into the recovery process shortly after the fulltime whistle each week.
"You've got to have the same mentality every week, the Kiwi derbies are tough and the most important thing is recovery so it will be important that as soon as we finish each game we recover really quickly because it's straight into the next."
Recent history against the Highlanders shows every bit the tight and gruelling physical affairs that New Zealand-derby matches have become known for in Super Rugby.
Who could forget last year's dramatic draw in Dunedin or the Highlanders comeback victory with a man down to begin the 2019 comp? Those two classics alone were a solid advertisement for Super Rugby as it enters a new unique instalment.
Last Friday, an inter-squad hit out gave Chiefs coaches a good look at just where everyone was at a little over a week out from Super Rugby Aotearoa, and for the most part, everyone has come through injury-free.
Prior to the lockdown putting a red mark over the original 2020 season, things had been tracking well for the Chiefs, dropping just two of their six games and maintaining decent position on the ladder.
The lessons learnt from earlier in the year were primarily positive, namely how the gameplan Warren Gatland and co wanted to implement had been coming together nicely, but the biggest challenge had been how the Chiefs were starting games.
Often leaking a try or two early in most matches, the focus this time around for the Chiefs is ensuring they come out of the sheds as the team with a point to prove.
There is no better man, you sense, to ignite such a fire than McKenzie who tells of the importance behind senior players leading from the front.
"We want to set the tone by doing everything we can both on and off the field to be role models for the younger guys coming through but everyone is just so excited to be back training as a team and everyone is doing really well."
But for the Highlanders clash at least, the Chiefs will have to do it without their skipper Sam Cane who revealed on Tuesday that he will sit out opening weekend due to a slightly stiff back.
Brad Weber is expected to take over the captaincy of the Chiefs when the squad is officially announced on Thursday.