The 19-year-old first five headhunted by Scott Robertson to help fill the Mo'unga void
Omaio, a small coastal village in the Opotiki district of the Bay of Plenty received plenty of unusual attention in November when stories tracing the background of Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant were in abundance before the Black Ferns World Cup triumph over England.
If the new Crusaders first five-eighth Taha Kemara (Te Whanau a Apanui) has his own way Omaio won’t leave the headlines.
The 19-year-old was headhunted by Crusaders coach Scott Robertson to serve as a long-term replacement for All Blacks first-five Richie Mo’unga who will leave New Zealand Rugby in 2024 after signing a three-year deal with Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo.
In 94 matches for the Crusaders, Mo’unga has scored 1053 points and won six consecutive championships. Is Kemara intimated by the prospect of filling such large boots?
“Not at all,” he emphatically responded to RugbyPass.
“It’s such an awesome opportunity to add to the legacy and the All Blacks have made me feel really comfortable so far. They are all accessible.
“It never crossed my mind being down here but when Razor offered a full-time gig and there was a backlog at the Chiefs it was a no-brainer.
“My first impression of Razor is that he’s a good guy who cares about people. In our first phone call, we spent 20 minutes talking about personal things before we even discussed rugby. That empathy is important to me.”
Robertson said shortly after signing Kemara to the Crusaders roster.
“We had to put a development plan together, he’s a year younger. For him to come in and be under Richie is huge, that’s a big part of it for us, to make sure he can get in and learn from the master, be guided around what it is to be a pro.”
Omaio translates as a place of peace and tranquillity. Kemara laughed the only things that ever happened were “hunting, fishing, and diving. He described the village as “super chill.”
The practical nouns and a cool temperament that often comes from being raised in a small town are evident in the way Kemara plays. He approaches the game without inhibitions.
“I like to be an attacking threat wherever I am on the field. I’m always looking for that small gap that might appear or space on the outside.
“I model a lot of my approach on Richie Mo’unga and last year was lucky to have Damian McKenzie show me the ropes with Waikato in the NPC.”
Life was comfortable for Kemara growing up in Omaio. His father Maxie was a police officer in Opotiki while his mother Kelli was a secondary school teacher. However, a hefty petrol bill traveling to sport and genuine ambition for success saw the Kemara family relocate to Hamilton where Taha soon flourished at Hamilton Boys’ High School.
He made the formidable First XV in Year 11 and helped Hamilton win three consecutive Super 8 titles between 2019 and 2021. In 2020 the First XV was unbeaten.
“I’m very lucky my parents made big sacrifices for my sister and me. Hamilton was a bit of a culture shock at first. I couldn’t believe how intense the training was but the Super 8 was awesome testing yourself against some of the best teams in the county,” he said.
“My best season was in Year 13 when I got a chance to be a leader in the team. I had some ups and downs off the field but the learnings and pride that came with being a leader of such a prestigious team were special. I was proud of the way I conducted myself.”
Kemara thrived for the Chiefs in Super Rugby Under 20 in May 2022. Ironically, he scored two tries and kicked three conversions in a 31-32 loss to the Crusaders and then scored another brace in a 58-26 demolition of the Hurricanes. That form was strangely insufficient to see him selected for the New Zealand U20s.
Waikato opportunities were limited because of the presence of All Black first five Damian McKenzie. However, Kemara showed he could cut loose when required.
In a 54-24 win against Southland, he scored two tries and slotted seven conversions. He also dotted down in a 53-6 slaying of Manawat?. Waikato failed to defend their Premiership title losing to Bay of Plenty in the quarter-finals.
Kemara is not the only bright prospect Waikato has lost to the Crusaders, halfback Noah Hotham partnered Kemara in the Hamilton Boys’ First XV.
“It’s surreal we’re both in Christchurch. It’s way different from the North Island, to be honest. It’s flat, I can see for miles.
“Noah is one of my best friends, our families are tight, and we’ve played a lot of footy together. It would be awesome to play Super Rugby with each other.”
If Kemara does succeed in Super Rugby, you can guarantee Omaio will throw a huge party. The Kemara family are friends with the Demant family.
“It was pretty buzzy to see Ruahei doing so well at the World Cup. I think they partied for days after the Black Ferns won. I want to make people from Omaio proud too.”
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