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Is this the best piece of recruitment from the Super Rugby off-season?

By Tom Vinicombe
Taha Kemara. (Original photo by Sarah Lord/Photosport)

There were a few noteworthy pick-ups in the New Zealand Super Rugby Pacific squads announced on Tuesday.

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The likes of Noah Hotham and George Bell look to be long-term prospects with incredible potential down in Crusaders country while the same could be said for Peter Lakai and Riley Higgins at the Hurricanes. The Highlanders have lost two highly valuable players, with Manaaki Selby-Rickit heading to the Chiefs and Christian Lio-Willie to the Crusaders while the returns from Japan of Damian McKenzie, Patrick Tuipulotu and (to a lesser extent) Brett Cameron will bolster the chances of the Chiefs, Blues and Hurricanes respectively.

However, it’s a shrewd bit of business done in Christchurch that may be looked back on as the biggest coup of the off-season.

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19-year-old Waikato playmaker Taha Kemara could be the most important long-term signing that the Super Rugby Pacific champions have made in a number of years, with the young first five channelling a young Damian McKenzie in his limited opportunities throughout this season’s NPC competition.

Fergus Burke and Brett Cameron were once the heirs-apparent to All Black Richie Mo’unga in the No 10 jersey for the Crusaders but it appears that Scott Robertson could be shifting the focus to the fleet-footed youngster who has just five provincial appearances to his name.

Cameron struggled for opportunities with the Crusaders throughout his three seasons in Christchurch, eventually taking his services to the Kamaishi Seawaves in Japan. The 26-year-old is now back in NZ and will have eyes on the starting flyhalf berth for the Hurricanes – although he will face some fierce competition from Aidan Morgan and Ruben Love.

Burke, meanwhile, was lured south after completing his schooling in Hamilton and has slowly developed into a cool and composed playmaker for the red and blacks.

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With Mo’unga set to spend the 2024 Super Rugby season offshore, Burke will likely step into the first five-eighth role for the Crusaders – but if Kemara sticks around, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be running the cutter in the following seasons.

Mo’unga will be 30 when the 2025 season kicks off while Burke will be 25. The former will still very much be capable of bossing around a backline and will naturally still harbour hopes of featuring at the 2027 Rugby World Cup. After all, Dan Carter was 33 at his swansong tournament in 2015. The latter will perhaps be entering his prime as a running five-eighth and with two more seasons of Super Rugby under his belt, should be pushing Mo’unga for starting opportunities – especially if he’s performed well in Mo’unga’s absence.

Kemara, on the other hand, will be just 21. That might seem like too young an age for a No 10 to be earning regular starts at Super Rugby level but that never used to be the case.

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Carter was 21 when he made his All Blacks debut – as were his successors, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden. Carlos Spencer and Andrew Mehrtens, the men that Carter eventually replaced, were 20 and 21 respectively.

That’s not to suggest that Kemara will be playing Test rugby in just two years – but that’s the length of time it took the above five stars of the game to progress from playing provincial rugby to the world stage.

In Noah Hotham and Taha Kemara, the Crusaders have a new halves pairing that already know each other’s games well, with the combination playing alongside one another a number of times for the Hamilton Boys’ High School 1st XV.

The selection of Hotham should come as no surprise given that the youngster linked up with Tasman immediately following his schooling but luring Kemara south as well would have required some wining and dining from Scott Robertson given the first five’s ties to the Chiefs region.

The decision to head south may not have been a difficult one for Kemara to make once all the cards were on the table, however.

The Chiefs already have four bonafide flyhalf options on their books in the forms of Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane, Rivez Reihana and Damian McKenzie. With Kaleb Trask set to return to the franchise in 2024 on a two-year deal, the franchise isn’t exactly lacking for playmaking talent.

Gatland, Ioane and McKenzie could all look to head overseas following next year’s World Cup, however, leaving Trask and Reihana to battle it out for the starting No 10 jersey – and that’s when Kemara would have become a major asset for Clayton McMillan’s team.

Reihana, at 22, could become the long-term playmaking option for the Chiefs in the years to come and was finally able to earn himself some regular minutest at first receiver throughout the NPC season just gone and would potentially block the way for Kemara’s development while Bay of Plenty’s Lucas Cashmore could also come into the picture.

Notably, however, the Crusaders brought 20-year-old Cashmore into their mix during the 2022 pre-season but have instead opted for the less experienced Kemara for 2023, evidently deciding that the younger model might be the best option for the franchise.

Kemara was a stand-out for the Chiefs Under 20 side at this year’s age-grade Super Rugby tournament and last year was co-captain of the Hamilton 1st XV that won the Super 8 title. While the length of his contract with the Crusaders is currently unknown, if Kemara can impress with his off-the-field work ethic throughout his debut campaign then Roberton’s successor as coach will undoubtedly want to keep the youngster in the region and foster him into the star of the future.

Taha Kemara’s recruitment may not immediately pay dividends for the Crusaders – but it’s a shrewd bit of recruitment that further illustrates why the franchise has had so much success over the past half-decade.

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