Southland rugby has been dealt a blow with 21-year-old pivot Marty McKenzie signed to play for Taranaki for the next two seasons.
McKenzie came off contract with Rugby Southland at the end of last year but there was hope he would remain in the south.
Rugby Southland general manager Brian Hopley was aware McKenzie was looking at his options but he admitted it did catch them by surprise when McKenzie informed the union last week that he was heading to Taranaki.
"We knew he had gone up and had discussions with Taranaki but we thought he would be coming back. [Stags coach] Brad [Mooar] wanted to organise a meeting with him and sit down with him but he informed us late on Thursday that he was going," Hopley said.
McKenzie told The Southland Times last night that he was thankful for what everyone had done for him in Southland but felt now was the time for a change to help his rugby career grow.
"I just thought it was the right time to have a change, a new challenge, I guess, in a a new environment heading forward. It's gutting to leave Southland but I think for my rugby at the moment it's probably the best option," he said.
"I would like to thank all the supporters and the coaches who have coached me down there over the years for the work they have put into me.
"There's no saying I won't be back – I'm on a two-year deal with Taranaki – I could be back whenever."
He said the change in Stags coach over the Christmas-New Year period wasn't a factor in the move and the decision was all-but done before that came out.
The fact the Chiefs are now aligned to Taranaki did make the move more appealing for McKenzie, although that wasn't the defining reason, he said.
The Chiefs have recently shown interest in McKenzie as injury cover for the 2014 Super Rugby season.
The Taranaki organisation appealed to McKenzie with understood other unions were also interested in his services.
"When I heard Taranaki was interested in having me join their team, I was pretty excited. I know a few boys in the Taranaki environment, like Jamison Gibson-Park and Rhys Marshall, who I know both really enjoy playing up there," he said.
"When I had the opportunity to visit the Naki and meet with Colin [head coach Colin Cooper], Mike [chief executive Mike Collins] and a few others, I could see why the guys speak so highly of the setup."
McKenzie lined up for Southland in the national sevens tournament in Rotorua at the weekend and that is likely to be his last act with Southland rugby for the next two years anyway. The youngster to play his club rugby in Taranaki in the leadup to the provincial season.
Cooper said McKenzie was a welcome addition to their province.
"We're very pleased that Marty will be joining us this year. His inclusion in the side provides us with depth in key positions, covering 10, 15 and 12," he said.
"Marty's a young man with ITM Cup and Super Rugby experience. Also, he is of good character and will fit into our environment really well."
McKenzie attended Gore High School before moving to Christ's College in Canterbury to complete his final two years of schooling. He played first XV rugby for Christ's College for two seasons before returning home – making his debut for Southland in 2011 after playing for Woodlands in club competition.
Last year, McKenzie signed a two-year contract with the Blues but was released from the Auckland franchise with a year to go on his contract and instead he took up a national sevens contract.
Probably McKenzie's highlight in the maroon jersey come last year when he kicked a dropped goal late the game to beat North Harbour at Rugby Park in Invercargill.
That game he also scored two tries and landed two conversions in a sublime 17-point haul.
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