Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi's quest for redemption
Tahuriorangi, who had spent two years with the Hurricanes before making the move north, was praised by Steve Hansen for his wickedly fast pass which rivalled that of even Aaron Smith.
Although Tahuriorangi was never expected to seriously challenge for a starting role, it was clear that he had been anointed the heir-apparent to the more experienced duo leaping ahead of the likes of Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond and Chiefs teammate Brad Weber.
Then everything turned to custard in 2019.
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Chiefs coach Colin Cooper gave Weber the first opportunity to start at halfback and the 28-year-old took the opportunity with both hands.
Weber’s sumptuous form coupled with his extra few years of experience over Tahuriorangi saw the sometimes-stand-in captain start in all but a handful of the Chiefs’ matches.
Tahuriorangi, who had fought his way onto level pegging with Weber in 2018, was restricted to fewer than three full games of football throughout last year’s Super Rugby season.
Then came the coup de grace.
On August 28th, the All Blacks World Cup squad was announced. Tahuriorangi was nowhere to be seen – Weber had taken his place.
New Zealand's third choice halfback, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, played the equivalent of only eight full games of professional rugby in 2018 and game time has been equally hard to come by this season at the Chiefs. https://t.co/p9smDCvHlo
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 12, 2019
By Tahuriorangi’s own admission, 2019 did not go to plan.
“Last year wasn’t my year,” Tahuriorangi told RugbyPass.
“I guess for me, it’s just making sure I turn it around this year and have a different kind of mindset and attitude and keep putting that pressure on. Just making sure I control what I can control and doing my best and putting my best foot forward.”
Despite the obvious disappointment that Tahuriorangi felt surrounding both the Super Rugby and international seasons, the Rotorua-born scrumhalf didn’t let his head drop – he still has plenty of time to make a comeback.
“Everyone thinks I’m kind of old,” said Tahuriorangi. “I’ve been in the Super Rugby environment for a while, first with the Hurricanes for two years then here for a few years, but I’m still young.”
Tahuriorangi, for reference, is just 24-years-old.
While Weber was mostly clocking up time with the other dirty-dirties at the World Cup, Tahuriorangi was throwing himself into a Mitre 10 Cup campaign with Taranaki and honing his skills for the year ahead.
Tahuriorangi racked up eight starts and 10 appearances for the amber-and-blacks, which was the most successive game-time he’d accrued since the 2017 provincial season.
New @ChiefsRugby recruit Quinn Tupaea could add an extra dimension to the Chiefs midfield for their 2020 @SuperRugby campaign. @TomVinicombe spoke to the 20-year-old ahead of the upcoming season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 3, 2020
He’s now taken part in a full pre-season with the Chiefs and enters 2020 with a fresh mind, fresh body and a lofty goal..
“My ultimate goal is obviously getting back into the All Blacks,” said Tahuriorangi, “but it’s also about having little plans.
“How you come to training is just as important as your ultimate goal, because in order to be chosen [for the All Blacks], you’ve got to be playing, and the only way you can play is if you train well.
“When you’ve got halfbacks out there that are chasing the same goals as you, it keeps you on your toes – and that’s awesome, I live for that stuff.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
Equally as importantly, the former Rotorua Boys’ High student wants to achieve balance in his professional and personal lives.
“It’s hard to do that mahi, do that work, unless you’re getting the balance right off the field; being a good father, being a good person.
“Last year, my wife Keely probably took it all when I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t quite being myself. I knew I had to come in and always have the attitude of wanting to play. Now that I’ve experienced that, I know how to handle it and channel it in a positive way.”
Tahuriorangi understandably credits the strong support team he has around him for helping him get to where he his today and suggests they have just as major a role to play in his future successes.
“I can happily say that if it wasn’t for [Keely], who knows what I would have done,” said Tahuriorangi.
“When times were tough, she was the one that kept me on true north and made sure all my goals were measurable.
“I’ve got great mentors too: my uncle Lee Edmonds, my father Paerata and my father-in-law Tom. They pushed me when times were tough but when times were good too.
“When I made my All Blacks debut, they were the guys that were telling me ‘stay humble’. It’s guys like that that can keep you grounded – when you’re high and when you’re low.
“It’s not just a one-man journey. I’ve never seen anyone do it by themselves.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 5, 2019
Closer to the professional scene, the coaching team that convinced Tahuriorangi to head to Taranaki for his provincial rugby set the halfback on the right course from the early stages of his career.
“I was just a Maori boy from Rotorua, I had no pathway so I’m just thankful for Taranaki. Paul Tito, Dave Dillon and Jono Philips… if it weren’t for those guys, I’d probably be back in Rotorua as a gang member.”
With Weber on an extended rest alongside the Chiefs’ other All Blacks, Tahuriorangi now has the first opportunity to advance his case with new coach Warren Gatland.
Weber didn’t start training with the squad until the middle of January and sat out the Chiefs’ only pre-season game, against the Blues.
That handed Tahurorangi the starting 9 jersey and his performance against his franchise’s northern neighbours didn’t go unnoticed by Gatland.
“I thought Triple T looked sharp,” Gatland said in the post-game wind-up. “We’re pretty happy with what he did.”
With Weber on restricted minutes for the first two matches of the regular season, Tahuriorangi will no doubt have further chances to push for a starting spot – including starting in this weekend’s opening Super Rugby game, between the Chiefs and the Blues – and he may be backed-up by his Taranaki teammate, Lisati Milo-Harris.
“He’s pretty young, exciting, fit – got a beautiful pass,” said Tahuriorangi of Milo-Harris, “It puts good pressure on me and Brad. If we don’t perform, he could easily slip in there.
The battle of the halfbacks will certainly be one of the major talking points for the Chiefs season ahead.
One of Weber’s major strengths compared to Tahuriorangi is his experience, which was sorely needed last year with so many other experienced players out with injury.
Damian McKenzie's return from injury in 2020 will add plenty of firepower to an already scorching @ChiefsRugby backline. Where does the young playmaker fit in, asks @TomVinicombe.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 10, 2019
At the national level, Weber’s experience was also valued highly for the World Cup. Despite being part of the All Blacks squad for a season, Tahuriorangi managed just three appearances over that time.
With the next World Cup four years away, there’s room for some young blood in the set-up once more – and that’s a role Tahuriorangi is aiming to fill.
Of course, as alluded to by the Chief, he’s unlikely to get selected for the All Blacks if he can’t earn selection at Super Rugby level.
So begins Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi’s quest for redemption.
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