On the 1,000-acre dairy farm near Waikaka in the remote part of Southland where Damian McKenzie grew up there was plenty of time to dream. He would spend his days chucking a ball around with his older brother Marty, wondering if life would ever take him beyond Gore or Invercargill. Not too many rise from the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island – next stop Antarctica – to the top of world rugby.
Sitting at the back of the same room in Cardiff on Thursday, was one who did: Jeff Wilson, the all-round Kiwi wizard of his day, who played cricket and rugby for New Zealand and once scored 66 points in a schoolboy game when four-point tries still existed (it would have been 75 in today’s money). Then there was Brian McKechnie, born in Gore, who kicked the goal that denied Wales a famous 1978 win over the All Blacks after Andy Haden dived out of the final lineout at the old Cardiff Arms Park (though the argument over the exact penalised offence rages to this day).
McKechnie, another rugby player turned international cricketer, also happened to be the batsman to whom Trevor Chappell bowled the underarm delivery that caused a monumental trans-Tasman row and led to New Zealand’s prime minister, Robert Muldoon, to remark: “How appropriate the Australian team wears yellow.”
But that was February 1981, 14 years before McKenzie was born. The 22-year-old full-back says he has never even heard of McKechnie, let alone met him. If he scores the crucial points at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, only the Southland Times will make the connection.
The comparison with the gifted Wilson, though, is a decent one. Watch McKenzie at play – his Super Rugby highlights reel will instantly banish any wintry gloom – and he makes the impossible look routine. A magician’s hands, great feet, wonderful awareness, blistering pace … the All Blacks have yet another twinkling box-office star. “His speed is ridiculous,” said his former Chiefs team-mate James Lowe, now with Leinster. “He’s like a 5ft 4in version of Beauden Barrett.”
The blond pocket rocket is actually 5ft 8in but, in his own words, weighs barely “80kg dripping wet”. Imagine a Kiwi successor to Shane Williams with an even more dazzling box of tricks. On top of the game-breaking offloads, deft interplay and lightning incursions from the back, he can also kick goals. To foster a positive mindset his face crinkles into a deliberate smile just before he kicks them, making him look the happiest professional athlete in the world.
Give him a ball and a licence to play and he could still almost be the carefree kid side-stepping around back in Southland. “We had a lot of space growing up. We were pretty lucky; we had the farm to run around on and were always outside.”
To him, there is absolutely no point being dull on a rugby field or fearing the big beasts. “You don’t go out there to sit and wait for 80 minutes to come up and be relieved. It’s about making the most of every opportunity and getting excited by that. It’s about being positive and not being afraid. When you’re afraid you start second-guessing yourself. It’s a great challenge being small – when you’re playing against people twice your size it’s an awesome challenge. You need to embrace it.”