Super Rugby
Damian McKenzie: smiling assassin kicking goals
Sam Bruce
June 4, 2015
Damian McKenzie made his Super Rugby against the Blues in February © Getty Images
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It may just be the most eye-catching goal-kicking routine since Jonny Wilkinson first decided to lean forward with fists clenched; and just like the English great, Chiefs rookie Damian McKenzie is fast becoming a fan favourite.

The young gun with the goal-kicking grin has been thrust into the Super Rugby deep end this season, helping to guide the Chiefs to the brink of a fourth straight play-offs appearance. Switching between first-five and full-back, McKenzie has made the step up from New Zealand Under-20 star to Super Rugby regular in a fine first season at provincial level. Aaron Cruden's season-ending injury has given him the opportunity to start in the playmaking role and also take over the goal-kicking duties, unleashing the 20-year-old's cheeky smile to a whole new audience.

"I've done a bit of work with our mental coach at the Chiefs and I've sort of had some trouble with my kicking in the past," a chuckling McKenzie told ESPN on Wednesday. "It's sort of a way to try and block things out and to help take each kick as just another kick; it stops me from feeling too much pressure and relaxes me a bit more."

The grin, which is broadcast on both the big screens at venues and on television, is being increasingly recognised and may yet spawn a host of backyard imitators, particularly at the junior level. It's certainly starting to generate some buzz at the Chiefs' Waikato Stadium at home, and on the road; it's something for which McKenzie is prepared.

"It's expected," McKenzie said of the growing crowd buzz. "I probably deserve a bit of stick for doing it and I can definitely hear it when I'm kicking. And I can hear it from a few players, too, when I'm kicking; I suppose you've just got to get used to it when you're playing an away game if that's what the crowd is like."

The Chiefs' Damian McKenzie talks to a team-mate, Chiefs v Brumbies, Super Rugby, Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth, February 20, 2015
Damian McKenzie is becoming more comfortable directing high-profile team-mates around the paddock © Getty Images
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Away from the kicking tee, McKenzie has relished every challenge in what has been a testing year for the Chiefs. He made his Super Rugby debut at No.10 against the Blues way back in February, and has since switched between fly-half and full-back as Rennie rotated his options in the wake of Cruden's knee injury.

"I've always played No.10 and probably my first taste of playing 15 was at the 20s [World Rugby Under 20] tournament last year," he said. "But I'm easy; I'm here to do whatever is best for the team. Obviously at first-five, you run the ship a bit more while at 15 you've got a bit more time and space and a lot more opportunities to run. But, yeah, I'm easy doing whatever job suits the team."

Controlling a team including names such as Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick - who, like Cruden, have also been on the Chiefs' injured list at times - could be a daunting task for some youngsters; but McKenzie has enjoyed the responsibility that comes with the No.10 jersey.

"It can be difficult at times but you play that position for a reason; because you enjoy it," he said. "And especially at a young age, you've got to take the weight on your shoulders and just be demanding of the other players around you. And they obviously realise that. And the more you begin to lead the team around the paddock, the better the players seem to find it. So they're happy with me demanding and yelling at them at times."

McKenzie and the Chiefs make their way across the Tasman this week for a surprisingly mouth-watering clash with Queensland Reds in Brisbane. Buoyed by last week's win over the Force, and the motivation of staging James Horwill's and Will Genia's final home Super Rugby game, the Reds are more than capable of upsetting the two-time Super Rugby champions. McKenzie is certainly wary of the threat the Reds pose, Quade Cooper in particular; a player he may well face directly.

"They played a good game last weekend with Cooper back at 10, and we expect nothing less," McKenzie said. "We know it's going to be a tough game over there in Brisbane and it's clearly a very important game for us; so if we can go over there and get a win it will be awesome. But we know there are a lot of key players, the likes of [Will] Genia and Cooper; when they get going they are pretty tough to stop so we'll have to put a bit of a focus around that."

A win this weekend will also take the pressure off what is sure to be a fierce local derby with the Hurricanes in New Plymouth in the final round of Super Rugby.

"I think the way it works is that if we get another win [this weekend] it will guarantee us a play-off spot," he said. "We know that going over to Brisbane is going to tough, especially with the Reds finding a bit of form last weekend; they've got nothing to lose. So it's going to be a tough game over there but hopefully we can get a win. And then obviously with that game against the Canes in New Plymouth, it's going to be an epic battle. So if we can get a win, or two wins, that would be awesome; and we'll be doing everything possible to do that."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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