Daniel McKenzie was splashed all over the news late last week, but as has often been the case for the unheralded Saint, it didn’t have anything to do with how well he’s been playing.
The wingman instead found himself on the end of the much-discussed dissent rule – the first player penalised following the AFL’s hard stance on the matter – which inevitably swept through headlines after Friday’s win in the nation’s capital.
Slowly but surely however, McKenzie is starting to get some airtime for work off his own bat.
His start to the year hasn’t ensnared the AFL world like Max King or Jack Higgins, nor has it got him as a frontrunner for the Brownlow Medal after six weeks, but those who have kept a close eye on the Saints can attest to how important he’s been to their 5-1 ledger.
While endurance and work-rate have always comprised the 25-year-old’s game and been constants in his 2022 surge, a fresh dose of confidence – and subsequent consistency – has been the fuel to amplify them.
That spike in confidence has been two-fold: finding belief in himself and knowing that his teammates have belief in him.
It’s something which midfield coach Ben McGlynn has witnessed first-hand.
“He’s a pretty reserved character, but on the footy field he’s definitely built confidence from his teammates acknowledging the stuff that he’s doing week, in week out,” McGlynn told saints.com.au.
“That’s in terms of his sacrificial running, his defensive side of the game and helping the backs. The coaching staff have been highlighting that as well to make sure those things are rewarded, and he’s featuring a fair bit in our reviews for the first four or five games.
“I think it’s his teammates who are really starting to express and share their trust in him, which is what you want from those around you.”
McKenzie’s job description as a wingman reads simple on paper: close the outlets, work up and down the ground, push back hard to support the backs, run all day.
It’s a dour role and one with little reward from a pure on-field sense, but one that has been vital to St Kilda’s structure and stability both offensively and defensively.
The consistency of that output has been just as prevalent. McKenzie’s head-down approach has allowed him to impact in big moments within games, and although his touch in them has been brief, there's no denying they’ve been crucial.
McGlynn points to one such example against Hawthorn last fortnight, wherein the No. 36 was awarded the Saints’ weekly Crest Award, which set the tone for the eventual 69-point triumph.
As had been stressed by Brett Ratten in the lead-up to the match, the Hawks would be relentless in attacking the corridor to work their way inside forward-50. It was up to the Saints – and McKenzie – to shut down that avenue.
Hawthorn had an opportunity to do just that early in the game and subsequently took the aggressive option, but were foiled by McKenzie who – on the far side of the ground – spoiled the kick in the centre square before hitting up Dan Butler for an easy goal out the back.
That passage is one of many instances for McKenzie this season.
“He’s probably one of the first or second magnets you put up each week for those reasons,” McGlynn said.
“It does take a while to build your own confidence but once the coaches have trust in you that you can play your role, it doesn’t become any issue in terms of selection.”
It’s in complete contrast to 2020, where McKenzie – in his sixth year at the club at the time – couldn’t break into the side as St Kilda registered its first finals appearance in almost a decade.
He performed well in the NPS modified games across Noosa and Maroochydore, but only had his name on the emergencies list for a handful of senior games to show for it.
Even his commendable 2021 campaign, which saw him move to the wing full-time, only included 12 outings after significant calf and concussion setbacks swiped a huge chunk of his year.
Now just six games into the new year, McKenzie’s unseen, under-the-radar body of work is starting to pay dividends.
“It’s definitely a role we value really highly,” McGlynn said.
“When you’re watching on TV, you don’t get to see what the width wingers or do. Even when you’re watching the (review) tape, you’re pretty much looking at all the contests and stoppages and don’t see all that up-and-down work.
McKenzie’s selflessness has also extended off-field.
The hard-running Saint has spent time with fellow wingers Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera and Mason Wood to educate them on the craft of playing in such a specialised position, even sitting in on the former’s weekly vision reviews with McGlynn.
“D-Mac’s very humble and he’s easy to coach, I know that much,” McGlynn said.
“He sits in on Nasiah’s tapes each week which I think is a good sign of leadership, but also confidence in his own ability and how he can educate his teammates around him.
“He probably wouldn’t have done that two or three years ago and it just shows how far he’s come. He’s always been a giving person and the boys know he’s a good teammate to have around.”