All Blacks star signs big-money deal with Japanese club

Author
Liam Napier, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 13 Aug 2021, 12:25PM
Damian McKenzie is off to Japan. (Photo / Photosport)
Damian McKenzie is off to Japan. (Photo / Photosport)

All Blacks star signs big-money deal with Japanese club

Author
Liam Napier, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 13 Aug 2021, 12:25PM

Damian McKenzie will skip Super Rugby next year after signing a lucrative deal to replace Beauden Barrett at Japanese club Suntory.

The 26-year-old Chiefs playmaker is off contract with New Zealand Rugby at the end of this season, and the Herald understands he has signed a five-month deal to link with Suntory Sungoliath at the completion of the All Blacks' northern tour.

In doing so, McKenzie will follow a flood of recent All Blacks to the new destination of choice in the Japanese Top League.

McKenzie's long-rumoured decision appears a pragmatic one following the cruelly-timed ACL injury that robbed him of the chance to attend the 2019 World Cup. With another long-term injury possible at any moment, taking the money while it's on offer makes sense.

While McKenzie's salary at Suntory is unknown, the club are not shy of splashing cash after reportedly stumping up $1.5 million to lure Barrett late last year.

McKenzie is believed to have been signed by Suntory with a view to filling Barrett's void at first five-eighth after he guided the club to this year's Top League final which they lost to Robbie Deans' Panasonic Wild Knights.

Suntory are coached by New Zealander Milton Haig, with England head coach Eddie Jones acting as consultant.

Damian McKenzie is off to Japan. (Photo / Photosport)

The move to Japan is not without risk for McKenzie as he attempts to establish his presence as the All Blacks' preferred fullback, having started three of this year's five tests in the role while coming off the bench in one other.

On Saturday night at Eden Park, McKenzie starts in the All Blacks back three alongside Sevu Reece and Will Jordan.

Jordie Barrett and Jordan are other compelling fullback prospects for the All Blacks and while Beauden Barrett has returned from Japan with a desire to play exclusively at No 10, he spent much of the past two years in the back field.

Beauden Barrett's case also offers a cautionary tale of the challenges in returning from Japan to New Zealand after falling behind Richie Mo'unga in the first-five pecking order while attempting to regain form from the bench.

At this point, the Herald understands McKenzie is yet to complete a contract to return to New Zealand Rugby which is holding up any official announcement.

McKenzie owns a house in Hamilton and has played 95 games for the Chiefs since 2015 and is, therefore, favoured to return to the franchise, but a deal is yet to be reached.

He could yet depart at the end of the year without a New Zealand contact, as TJ Perenara opted to do last year.

McKenzie's absence from Super Rugby next year will be a major blow for the Chiefs as they attempt to build on their Aotearoa final defeat to the Crusaders.