For the first four years of Jamie Booth’s Super Rugby career, the Manawatu halfback struggled to lock down anything beyond a one year contract. Now, the 26-year-old is halfway through a two year deal with the Hurricanes – an opportunity that’s really only presented itself due to the strides that Booth made during his 2019 stint with the Sunwolves.
Booth, a 2012 New Zealand secondary schools representative, made his provincial debut in 2014 for the Turbos and found himself drafted into the Blues set-up six months later as an injury replacement for Bryn Hall. With Jamison Gibson-Park and former All Black Jimmy Cowan also on the books, however, Booth was never able to crack the match-day squad.
Brief stints with the Newcastle Falcons, Highlanders, Hurricanes and New Zealand sevens team followed – but nowhere was prepared to sign the dynamic halfback on anything more than a one-year deal.
In early 2019, with not even a full-time contract with the Hurricanes locked in, Booth received a message out of the blue from Sunwolves coach and Kiwi rugby mastermind Tony Brown.
“The Hurricanes hadn’t picked me in their squad,” Booth told RugbyPass. “They offered me a 10-week replacement player deal the for pre-season and I was pretty much just starting that – then Tony Brown hit me up on Instagram.
“He basically just asked me what my plans were and what I was up to and I told him that I was with the Canes as an injury replacement. He asked if I would be keen to come over to Japan and play for the Sunwolves.”
Two weeks later, Booth had signed on for the season with everyone’s second favourite Super Rugby side and was on a plane to Japan.
While the opportunity to play in Japan was alluring for Booth, it was the chance to be a full-time professional that really got him over the line.
“I’ve noticed in the few times that I’ve been involved full-time, how much I’ve grow as a player. I sort of just saw it as an opportunity to keep growing and keep learning.
“I feel like rugby in New Zealand can be so serious at times, and there’s so much expectation to perform and to play well, that you can almost forget why you’re doing it. For me, going over to the Sunwolves, I really found the enjoyment back in playing again.”
Just weeks into the Sunwolves season, however, SANZAAR announced that the team would be culled from Super Rugby at the end of 2020. That galvanised the squad and by the end of the competition, the Sunwolves had picked up first-ever wins against the Chiefs and Waratahs – which doubled as their first-ever wins on New Zealand and Australian soil.
At the end of the year, Booth was offered a contract extension with the Tokyo-based team and the then-25-year-old was seriously considering signing on for another season.
"Whenever you got pulled into Tana’s office just by yourself, usually it wasn’t great news."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 30, 2020
“I just loved my time with the Sunwolves so much,” Booth said, “But all the management was moving on and pretty much 90% of the players were moving on too because they had to play for their Top League teams in 2020, so they weren’t going to be involved.
“I didn’t know who the coaches were going to be, who the other players were going to be, and the unknown was a bit scary.”
It also would have meant that Booth was once again inking a short-term deal, due to the impending ejection of the Sunwolves from the competition. Thankfully, another option presented itself.
The Hurricanes, the team that Booth supported during his childhood and the side that he’d had a brief stint with in 2018, tabled an offer to get the halfback back in New Zealand.
“When the Canes first talked to me, they asked what they’d need to offer for me to come back,” said Booth. I was like, ‘Two years would be the start’.
“A massive part about coming back home was around the certainty of knowing a little bit about the future. I’d never signed with a team for two years or longer, I’d only ever had one year. I never really had certainty about what I was doing, which could be pretty frustrating at times.”
The Hurricanes put a two-year deal on the table and Booth then had to make a call on his future.
“I sort of weighed up two years versus six months [what was on offer with Sunwolves], the unknown versus the known and, in the end, I felt what was best for me as a rugby player was to come back to New Zealand.”
With another year of full-time rugby and experience under his belt, Booth was determined to have more of an impact in 2020 than when he previously played for the Hurricanes in 2018.
“I felt like in 2018, the coaches sort of never really wanted to take TJ [Perenara] off because they didn’t really trust the guys in behind,” said Booth.
“So that was probably one of my big goals. I knew I was never going to get lots of starts or big minutes, but I wanted the coaches to trust that if something was to happen, they could put me on and not have to worry too much.”
Right from the outset, Booth was thrust into the action courtesy of some orders passed down from the powers-that-be.
“I was really lucky because they were doing those All Blacks minutes at the start of the year – they had restrictions on how long they could play for,” Booth said. “Their hand was forced, and I knew it was an opportunity for me to show the coaches that I could do that role and to earn their trust.
“I think one of the games I played was like 30 minutes then 12 minutes and 25 or something like that. That’s pretty big minutes for a reserve halfback at the Hurricanes.”
While he naturally wanted to prove his worth, there was never any pressure on Booth to play the way that Perenara does.
“Alfie [Hurricanes head coach Jason Holland] just had heaps of conversations with me about getting to the ball fast and getting rid of it,” said Booth. “Then whatever happens, happens after that – but do that first. That just put me in good stead and really helped I reckon.
“I had a really great, enjoyable season. I felt like every time I got an opportunity, I put my best foot forward.
“I wasn’t worried about playing well or whatever. I was just going out and having some fun.”
"I just didn’t have that same attachment to the Blues."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 7, 2020
Booth always added plenty of impetus off the Hurricanes bench and his deceptively quick speed coupled with his smart running lines meant the halfback was regularly in support to score tries or provide the final pass.
While the birth of Perenara’s first child in the final week of Super Rugby Aotearoa may have forced the Hurricanes coaches hands, gifting Booth a rare start, Holland and co would likely have had absolute confidence that the Turbo could get the job done – a complete turnaround from two years prior.
“Getting that start was awesome,” Booth said. “Sometimes, when you come off the beach, you’re just expected to join everyone’s level. When you start the game, everyone builds into the game, and you can build into the game, and you get momentum from that as well.
“It was tough on the lungs. I was blowing big time and I remember getting pulled at about the 55-minute mark and I sat down on the bench and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’m buggered.’”
Nine years after first earning selection in the Hurricanes Under 18 side (a squad which also included fellow Palmerston North Boys’ High School student Ngani Laumape), Jamie Booth has finally nailed down a permanent spot with his local franchise – he’s just had to travel halfway around the world to do it. Now, the Turbos captain’s future is filled with promise.
It’s a good time to be a halfback in New Zealand, with the three men who travelled to last year’s World Cup unlikely to also make the trip in 2023. Despite the excellent impact that Booth has added from the bench, however, higher honours aren’t on the radar at this stage, with Booth still content working his way up the chain at the Hurricanes.
“I think I’m probably well down that national pecking order in terms of halfbacks. I’m not really too focused on any of that stuff at the moment. I still feel like there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before anything like that has to be thought about.
“Halfback is a specialist position. The beauty of it is most weeks they’re going to take two halfbacks in the 23 and if there’s only three of you in the squad, there’s a high chance that you’re going to be involved most weeks.
“Everyone wants to play big minutes; everyone wants to start. I suppose it’s just weighing up expectations of playing time versus where you want to go. At the moment, I’m really happy with what’s happening, and how the season went. In two years’ time, will I be in that same position? Who knows? I suppose it’s just as a player, understanding it, and accepting it, and then figuring out what you want to do and where you want to go that will probably dictate a few things.”
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