How the Blues won a three-way tug-of-war to secure one of New Zealand's brightest young talents
It’s little coincidence that Taranaki’s thrilling Ranfurly Shield victory over Canterbury in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup coincided with Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens’ first standout showing at provincial level.
Aged just 19, the former New Zealand Schools representative bagged two first half tries to help steer a star-studded Taranaki side to a famous 23-22 win in Christchurch as they reclaimed the Lod ‘o Wood for the first time since 2018.
“I just let Beaudy [Beauden Barrett] do all the work,” Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens told RugbyPass as he reflected his part in the victory.
“I was just trying to be there on his shoulder.”
While Barrett, the superstar All Blacks playmaker, was responsible for assisting the second of Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens’ two tries, it still took a valiant effort and finishing nous from the teenager to get across the line both times.
Those attributes, combined with his speed, footwork and impressive composure, were all presumably what Blues head coach Leon MacDonald took note of that day, as it was that performance that kickstarted a three-way tug-of-war for Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens’ signature at Super Rugby level.
Until then, the ex-Francis Douglas Memorial College pupil had a foot in the camps of two of the Blues’ local rivals.
Hailing from the Taranaki region, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens spent his childhood as an avid Hurricanes fan, as the province was aligned with the Wellington-based franchise during his youth.
That was until the 2013, when the Taranaki Rugby Union shifted allegiance to the Chiefs to help form the Chiefs Rugby Club Limited Partnership with a group of private investors and provincial unions.
In doing so, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens went on to represent the Chiefs at schoolboy level, prior to making the New Zealand Schools sides of 2018 and 2019.
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“Obviously I grew up in the ‘Naki quite a loyal Hurricanes fan, and then when we moved into the Chiefs region, went through the Chiefs U17, U18 sides in high school,” he said.
Given his admiration for the Hurricanes and his presence in the Chiefs region, both franchises were aware of Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens’ talents and made ploys to recruit him in just his first year out of school.
Then, as Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens put it, “the Blues kind of came out of nowhere”.
“It was actually after we took the Shield off Canterbury, I think Leon was in contact with my agent, asking ‘Who is this guy?’, and all that, and I didn’t really think too much of it.
“I was more, at the time, stoked to win the Shield and beat Canterbury, and then it all kind of kicked off from there.”
While the prospect of living in Auckland isn’t something that had crossed his mind while growing up, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens said it made sense to sign with the Blues ahead of the Chiefs and Hurricanes, despite their eagerness to land their man.
“I guess living in Auckland wasn’t something I never really saw myself doing, but those were the three clubs I had to choose from and it took me a few months, just kind of weighing up little things.
“We had a few offers that my agent sent to me and tried to narrow it down from three teams to two and then two to one, so that’s why the process took long, was just weighing up small things, but ultimately went with Auckland, the Blues.”
Turning down the teams he grew up in awe of and represented at youth level is something Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens describes as “easily the toughest thing I’ve had to do in my life so far”, but it has proven to be a good call thus far.
Now living in Auckland’s city centre with teammates Stephen Perofeta and Emoni Narawa, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens said “he’s pretty happy” with how things are going as the Blues continue their pre-season training.
Every year, at least one Super Rugby rookie earns All Blacks honours at the first time of asking – but who exactly could make that step up this time round? #AllBlacks #SuperRugby https://t.co/oOgi9orwqL
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The move to New Zealand’s biggest city was made easier by the fact that Perofeta, a Taranaki teammate of Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, was also part of the Blues squad and was keen to live with the Super Rugby rookie.
“When I told him I was coming up to Auckland, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’ll be us living together’, and I think this is his fifth pre-season, so he’s becoming a bit of a veteran,” Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens said.
“It’s been good. Obviously a long way from the ‘Naki, but now I know, kind of, the route to training and back. It took a week, but I’m enjoying it, it’s good to be with these two boys as well.”
All three players have had their work cut out for them in the early stages of the year, though, as the Blues have been put through their paces in the form of Bronco fitness tests and a gruelling mud run in Devonport.
While halfback Jonathan Ruru clinched this year’s Bronco title in the absence of record-holder Barrett with a rapid time of 4min 16sec, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens was content with his 4min 29sec effort.
“Coming off a New Years and Christmas break, pretty happy with that.”
With seven weeks until the Blues kick their 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign off against the Hurricanes in Wellington, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens is yet to fully establish what he wants to get out of his first season of fully professional rugby.
However, being part of a competitive outside back cohort that features a raft of high-potential prospects including Narawa, Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea, Zarn Sullivan and AJ Lam, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens hopes to make the most of the chances handed to him.
“First I just want to get through this pre-season, because it just drags on, and then first and foremost would just be a debut,” he said.
“Whatever comes from that, whether it be a try, a starting jersey, I kind of want to take that debut opportunity and make the most of it and whatever comes from that I’d be pretty stoked with.”
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