TODAY |

Opinion: Why Damian McKenzie would be stupid to leave NZ rugby

If rumours are to be believed, then Damian McKenzie is the latest high profile New Zealand rugby star to catch the eye of the cash rich teams of Europe, most notably England's Leicester Tigers, however as 2018 shapes to be the biggest year of his short career, the Chiefs' star would be foolish to throw it all away.

As Aaron Cruden's departure to Europe draws closer and closer, there will be a first-five shaped hole for both club and country that has McKenzie's name on it - making him too important of a player for New Zealand rugby to allow to leave before getting anywhere near his potential ability.

Over the last couple of seasons, McKenzie has shone in a Chiefs side that have at times looked all but unbeatable in Super Rugby.

Smith was forced to leave the field in the 27th minute of the match against the Lions at Eden Park, Auckland. Source: 1 NEWS

Playing from fullback, his incisive runs, blistering speed and vision with the boot have made him the attacking linchpin - a fact made all the more impressive when you consider that he's effectively being played out of position.

To put it simply, were McKenzie to leave our shores now, New Zealand fans wouldn't get to see all that he has to offer playing in his best position at first-five.

With Cruden just weeks away from leaving New Zealand to join French side Montpellier, 2018 will see McKenzie take the role of the Chiefs' starting first-five, with his playmaking abilities to be given a greater responsibility in helping steer his side around the park.

Incoming Chiefs coach Colin Cooper will no doubt build his side around McKenzie next year, and while the financial incentives of playing abroad may be tempting, the chance to cement himself as one of the best players to ever wear the yellow, red and black jersey.

But it won't just be the Chiefs set to benefit from McKenzie's switch to number 10, with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen a known admirer of his talents at first-five.

Injuries to Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder have left McKenzie at the top of the All Blacks’ pile. Source: 1 NEWS

"We have said publicly that we'd like him to play 10," Hansen said earlier this year.

While McKenzie has made his Test debut as a fullback, it's at first-five where his international future belongs, with his somewhat diminutive stature certain to be exposed at the highest level playing in the number 15 jersey.

Cruden's departure will see McKenzie and Lima Sopoaga battling it out to be deputy to Beauden Barrett for the All Blacks, with the Highlanders' playmaker's recent injury woes destined to play a role in seeing the rise of McKenzie in the black jersey.

Having had his breakthrough season in 2016, the ever smiling McKenzie now faces a fight for his place as an All Black. Source: 1 NEWS

Not to mention his accuracy with the boot will see him push Barrett all the way for a starting spot, and when you consider that at just 22 years of age, we aren't anywhere near seeing the best of Damian McKenzie.

Fair to say, were he to get at least two seasons playing regularly at first-five, don't be surprised if McKenzie were to usurp Barrett as the All Blacks' main man.

While it's ultimately going to be McKenzie's decision as to whether or not he stays in New Zealand or departs for the lifestyle that only European rugby can bring, All Blacks fans in particular should be praying that one of the biggest talents we've seen in a long time chooses to stay and possibly cement himself as one of this country's best players.

The Chiefs' fullback will wear the number 10 for the Maori All Blacks against the Lions tonight. Source: 1 NEWS