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'Wasn't big enough or fast enough': The 'average' centre who is the Crusaders newest halfback

By Adam Julian
(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

“You can either be an average centre or a really good halfback,” Noah Hotham laughs when recalling a conversation with dad about his rugby future with RugbyPass.

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The promising teenager had quit soccer at intermediate and knew he was good enough to make headway in rugby but wasn’t sure where.

His father Nigel Hotham suggested playing nine.

“I’m short like Dad and wasn’t big enough or fast enough to play in midfield so halfback with my touch background was a good fit, ” Hotham said.

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“Initially I hated it.”

Noah soon blossomed with the sound advice of Dad, just one fledgling youngster that has benefited from a Nigel Hotham pep talk.

For two decades Nigel Hotham has run the Hamilton Boys’ High School First XV and premier sevens teams. They have won more national titles in both formats than any school in the country.

Noah Hotham is another product of the ‘factory’ that has produced countless first class players and recent All Blacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Quinn Tupaea and Josh Lord.

He followed the traditional pathway at Hamilton Boys’ jumping from 14A to 15A and then the First XV in his final two years of college. The difference for Noah was his intimate connection with the coach. How did Noah handle a grumpy parent after a bad practice?

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“I got asked that question a lot from the boys and honestly it wasn’t too bad. When Dad was angry about rugby it was obvious, so you didn’t broach that subject.

“When I was in Year 13 and more of a leader in the team Dad was able to give me some more insight into what was going well and what wasn’t. That was helpful better understanding what he and the boys were going through. Some of the best conversations we had about rugby were driving to practice in the morning.”

In 2019 Hamilton won the Super 8 competition for leading boys’ schools in the Central North Island. They were favourites to take out the National Top Four competition in Palmerston North. In the semi-final however they were beaten 11-10 by eventual winners Hastings Boys’ High who they’d toppled twice in the Super 8.

An unbeaten four-match tour of Japan went some way towards easing the pain of not delivering a national title and was also the catalyst for an undefeated 2020 season which ended lamely due to Covid.

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“We were pretty pissed off the Top Four was called off. Some of the players even wrote emails about it, but there wasn’t much we could. We were just frustrated after a great season we didn’t get a chance to fix what happened in 2019.”

The disappointment for Noah was short-lived. A National Development contract and place at the Highlanders while studying Applied Science at University was the launchpad for New Zealand Under 20s selection.

In 2022 he was exceptional for the ‘Baby Blacks’ who cleaned up the Oceania Championships against Fiji (74-5), Argentina (32-9) and Australia (69-12) in July. Noah scored tries in the Fiji and Aussie wins.

His form didn’t go unrecognised by the Crusaders. The departure of centurion Bryn Hall had the reigning champions sniffing for Noah, by late July they had their man for three years.

“I agonised over that decision for about three weeks. It’s properly the hardest call I’ve had to make in my life. I asked a lot of friends and family about it,” Hotham said.

“The Highlanders did so much for me and Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava were good mentors but their All Blacks and with a couple of good young halfbacks behind them, the competition was really tough.”

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Hotham was unwanted by Otago for the NPC. With Tasman this year he was named by the New Zealand Rugby Players Association as their Young Player of the Year.

Mitchell Drummond and former England halfback Willie Heinz are the other halfbacks on the Crusaders roster, they don’t appear to be as imposing as Smith and Fakatava.

“They’re good players and I’m going to have to work hard to earn my place. I haven’t figured out yet what exactly makes the Crusaders tick. I haven’t been here long enough, but they do bring such a high level of expectation with everything they do. They are really detailed and hammer the basics,” he said.

How about his initial response to Scott ‘Razor’ Roberston, architect of 86 out of 101 Super Rugby victories and six consecutive titles.

“When you first meet him, you wouldn’t think we was a rugby coach. He’s down to earth and he’s got this beachey, surfer dude vibe, but wow when it comes to coaching, he’s a real orchestrator. All the coaches are really involved and thorough.”

In his spare time, Noah enjoys the beach, skating, and photography.

The Crusaders 2022 training concludes on Friday, and they resume on January 9 next year. Their first pre-season fixture is against the Highlanders in Oamaru.

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