Rugby: Damian McKenzie locked in on All Blacks No.10 as Scott Robertson coaching era begins

Make no mistake, Damian McKenzie wants the All Blacks No.10 jersey.  

As the 2024 season dawns, starting with Super Rugby Pacific next month, the national team do not have a recognised first-five currently playing in New Zealand.  

Richie Mo'unga has left for Japan, signing a three-year deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus, which leaves him ineligible to don the black jersey. Meanwhile, Beauden Barrett has re-signed with the national union, after being used as a test fullback for most of the last two years.

Damian McKenzie.
Damian McKenzie. Photo credit: Getty Images

McKenzie, 28, has had to bide his time since his 2016 All Blacks debut, but this could be the year he makes his mark as a test 10.  

Most of his 47 appearances for his country have come either at fullback or playing a utility role off the bench, covering both the No.10 and No.15 playmaking roles, but this year, no-one stands ahead of him in the queue.  

Of all the active players within New Zealand - not including Barrett on his Japanese sabbatical - only Blues rival Stephen Perofeta could challenge McKenzie for that starting spot, but is also somewhat held back by his versatility as a fullback/first-five hybrid.  

Last year, with McKenzie at No.10, the Chiefs nearly completed a perfect season and came within a whisker of the Super Rugby Pacific title.  

The only blemish - a final loss to the Crusaders - was dished out by the man who'll now have the final say on his first-five ambitions, new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson.  

Rather than feel pressure to prove he's the man for the job, McKenzie knows the opportunity will only come if he makes the most of the chance in front of him with his franchise.   

"You've got to embrace it," he said. "There's obviously an opportunity there this year.   

"I've always been a person who takes it week by week. You've got to take care of your performance, you've got to prepare well.


"It's clear and obvious, there's an opportunity there in the first-five position. That's the position I want to be playing, that's where I want to be - being able to lead this team.  

"I know there's a lot to go and a lot of work to be done throughout the year, before that first team gets named. I'm really excited for that opportunity.  

"I can't wait to rip in with the Chiefs and, hopefully, this team later in the year."  

Robertson has gathered the bulk of his likely 2024 squad at Auckland for a refresher camp, before Super Rugby returns. Of the 33-man squad from France 2023, 22 attended the gathering, where Robertson has set the agenda for his maiden campaign.  

Who will play where this year is yet to be discussed, said McKenzie.   

"It's more about coming back and trying to get some good numbers in our testing, to be honest. We've had conversations in the past, along with a couple of other coaches in the management, so it's a big Super Rugby campaign ahead of us.

"Hopefully I can put my hand up for the No.10 jersey."  

Robertson's appointment is the biggest change to the national side in more than 20 years.  

With Sir Graham Henry succeeded by assistant Sir Steve Hansen, who was succeeded by assistant Ian Foster, a new coaching setup has been put in place for the first time since 2003.

Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown.
Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown. Photo credit: Getty Images

For the incumbent players, Robertson putting his stamp on the programme is a noticeable change.  

"He brings his own style to the environment, it's been good," McKenzie added. "He brings a lot of energy.  

"It's been a lowkey camp for the last few days. I've had a bit to do with him in the past, with the NZ U20s, the Baabaas - which was a lot of fun.  

"The last few days have been great, I'm looking forward to hopefully playing under him."