Damian McKenzie put the All Blacks on notice Saturday by sparking the Chiefs to a 43-17 Super Rugby thrashing of the Sunwolves in only his second game back from serious injury.
The twinkle-toed utility back, who missed out on last year’s World Cup in Japan after rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament, capped a superb performance with 11 points in Tokyo for Warren Gatland’s unbeaten side.
The Sunwolves, who began their farewell season with a 36-27 upset of the Melbourne Rebels two weeks ago, caught the visitors napping after just six minutes when flyhalf Garth April wriggled over to open the scoring.
But the Chiefs, champions in 2012 and 2013, struck back with a quickfire double, McKenzie releasing Solomon Alaimalo to touch down in the corner before Shaun Stevenson capped a great move to score on the opposite wing.
After a lineout set-play allowed Chiefs captain Brad Weber to smash his way through on 24 minutes, McKenzie pinballed off two tackles to tee up Alaimalo, who crossed the try line but handed the ball back to McKenzie to ground as a reward for his industry.
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Sunwolves hooker Jaba Bregvadze bowled over on the halftime buzzer to reduce the deficit at the break to 24-12, but flanker Lachlan Boshier raced through to add a fifth try for the Chiefs soon after the restart.
Shogo Nakano pulled one back with seven minutes left, only for the New Zealanders to hit back with two late scores from Quinn Tupaea and Kaleb Trask, completing a fine, seven-try display and give the scoreline a slightly flattering hue.
“If you don’t turn up with the right attitude any team can beat you,” Weber said, referring to last season’s humiliating home defeat by the Sunwolves.
“We found that out the hard way, that (result) was a massive driver for us today,” added the Chiefs skipper, who credited his team’s dominance at the breakdown for halting the home side’s early momentum.
“It was incredibly important, especially against a Sunwolves team who like to play at pace. We needed some of our big guys to put their heads in dark places and slow the ball down.”
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McKenzie, who returned in last weekend’s 25-15 victory over the Crusaders in Hamilton, slotted three of five conversions in blustery conditions against the Sunwolves.
The Tokyo-based side are playing their final season in the southern hemisphere’s elite competition, having recorded just eight victories in 61 games through their first five terms.
“We’re struggling to take our opportunities when they come,” admitted Sunwolves captain Jake Schatz.
“Maybe we switched off at important moments and against a team like the Chiefs you can’t afford to turn the ball over that easily.”