Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs' Damian McKenzie not focussing on All Blacks prospects after 2019 heartbreak

Four years on from missing the 2019 Rugby World Cup with a knee injury, Chiefs playmaker Damian McKenzie isn't counting his chickens before they hatch.

Since his test debut as a 21-year-old, McKenzie has regularly proven himself to be one of the most exciting players the All Blacks can call on.

But on the eve of the last World Cup, an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury snuffed out any chances of helping the All Blacks push for a third straight Webb Ellis Cup win, at a time when the now maligned 'dual playmaker' strategy seemed tailored for his inclusion.

This year, though, McKenzie appears back to his best.

Damian McKenzie for the Chiefs.
Damian McKenzie for the Chiefs. Photo credit: Getty Images

A move into the No.10 jersey has seen the 27-year-old play a pivotal role in the Chiefs' stellar start to 2023, currently the only side in Super Rugby Pacific with an unbeaten record after the first five rounds.

McKenzie didn't feature for the All Blacks at all in 2022 after a short-term stint in Japan with Suntory Sungoliath saw him ineligible until late in the year.

And even though he becomes a more tantalising prospect for coach Ian Foster by the week, McKenzie isn't letting the thought of higher honours distract him from the task at hand, playing well for the Chiefs.

"I missed out on the last World Cup, so clearly that's the goal," McKenzie told Newshub. "Clearly, anyone who's playing rugby in New Zealand this year is to be on that plane to France.

"[But] there's a lot of water to go under the bridge before then. I've got to play good rugby.

Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett.
Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett. Photo credit: Photosport

"There's obviously blokes playing good rugby out there. I'll just control what I can control, that's leading the Chiefs around and trying to get some good wins.

"That's task one. Hopefully greater things happen from there."  

McKenzie's move into first-five won't just increase his chances this year either.

Beaduen Barrett and Richie Mo'unga's moves offshore next year leave the All Blacks without a recognised No.10 for 2024 onwards, when Scott Robertson takes the helm of the side.

While neither are specialists, McKenzie and Blues utility Stephen Perofeta loom as the two most likely candidates to take over in the No.10 jersey, unless an as-of-yet uncapped player presents himself in the coming year.

To make matters more intriguing, the two will face off this Saturday when their two sides meet in Super Rugby. 

For McKenzie, playing at No.10 for the Chiefs will help his cause - with Perofeta currently filling the Blues' fullback position to accommodate Barrett before the World Cup.

Regardless, while not considering himself as a No.10 frontrunner by any stretch, McKenzie says he still has to keep learning what it takes to be a first-five. 

"Play good rugby - simple as that," he added. "I've got to get my game management right, making sure I'm leading the team [and] putting us in areas of the park where we can attack.

"Obviously [defending] up when we need to [defend], but just becoming a leader of a team and a drive of a team, if I'm playing 10, that's really important.

"So far, I feel like I'm doing a good job. There's always stuff to learn and get better at. 

"That'll keep growing throughout the season."