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Why Cortez Ratima chose Chiefs over Crusaders: 'A chance to represent my people'

By Tom Vinicombe
Cortez Ratima. (Original photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

When Cortez Ratima mapped out his future following his final year of high school in 2018, the young halfback wasn’t expecting to earn a Super Rugby contract just a few seasons later.

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He certainly wasn’t anticipating that he’d attract the interests of not one, not two, but three Super Rugby franchises – but that’s exactly how things have transpired for the 20-year-old.

Ratima was one of just two debutants named in the Chiefs squad for next year’s inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific, alongside Wellington hooker Tyron Thompson.

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Described by Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan as a young Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Ratima brings a similarly abrasive style of play to the No 9 jersey which was on full display during this year’s NPC campaign, which ended with Waikato claiming the title for the first time since 2006.

Although he started the season in the reserves, an injury to Xavier Roe paved the way for Ratima to take over starting duties and the young scrum-half flourished.

While his form throughout the NPC was undeniable, Ratima had actually sewn up his Super Rugby future ahead of the provincial campaign, committing to the Chiefs in May before the Under 20s programme kicked off.

“I wanted to get it done so that it was out of the way so I could just focus on the job at hand instead of worrying what I was doing for Super,” Ratima told RugbyPass.

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“I was definitely grateful to sign so early, especially at my age. I’m very young and halfbacks often don’t normally get [to play Super Rugby] until 22, 23, that sort of age, so the opportunity I’ve been given to sign and stuff is awesome, I’m really grateful.”

The Hurricanes had also earlier approached Ratima about coming onboard as temporary injury cover for the season but nothing eventuated, while an offer from the Crusaders was also tough to turn down.

“I was approached by the Crusaders earlier on and I sat on the decision about whether to stay or go for so long, maybe two weeks. I was trying to put the pros and cons together and had a lot of talks with the old man about what to do.”

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Ultimately, the decision came down to the fact that Ratima, who had grown up in the King Country before shifting to Hamilton for his high school year, had spent his youth supporting Waikato and the Chiefs.

“If I were to hopefully one day get to that goal of being an All Black, I thought about which jersey would I want under the All Blacks jersey – and that was the Chiefs,” Ratima said. “Being the place where I come from, it’s a chance to represent my people and my whanau. That was the major deciding factor.

“I’m really happy with my decision. I’m just super grateful that I’ve now got the opportunity to play for my home team, a team I’ve always looked up to.”

Ratima was “blown away” by the attention he received from Super Rugby sides, especially given he spent much of the first half of the year on the mend from injury thanks to a dislocated shoulder suffered in late stages of last year’s provincial campaign.

The 20-year-old has clearly been identified as a player for the future, however, after previously representing the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sevens side and various Maori age-grade teams.

This year, despite missing the Super Rugby Aotearoa Under 20s competition thanks to said shoulder injury, Ratima was still picked in the national Under 20s side for their home tour – and wore the No 9 jersey in three of their four matches. Unsurprisingly, that was a shot of confidence for the halfback, who had not yet made his on-field return from injury when the squad was first named.

“I went through the first nine rounds [of last year’s provincial competition] playing every game. I was pretty happy, getting a good fair bit off the bench and stuff,” Ratima said. “It just came down to that second-to-last game and I ended up popping my shoulder out.

“I had to push the doctor to get me in for scans and stuff because they were pretty happy for me to rehab it but I’m pretty glad I pushed them because they picked up something and I had to get the surgery done ASAP.

“That first club game I played back from injury, it was pretty scary, I’m not going to lie, until I made that first tackle. Then after that tackle I was like ‘Oh, the shoulder’s all good now’. I just got back into it like that.

“I was honestly so grateful that [the Under 20s] gave me that opportunity to still be included, especially knowing how much rugby I’d played during the year. I was obviously very lucky in that regard. It definitely was a confidence booster, being named, I was very grateful to be able to represent the jersey.”

It’s with Waikato that the young halfback has honed his craft this year, however, with Ratima managing 11 appearances throughout the title-winning season.

The injury that robbed 22-year-old Roe of another full season of development paved the way for his young understudy to fast-track his own growth – including getting more accustomed to starting matches, as opposed to being tasked with adding impact off the bench.

“Leading into my first season, I didn’t really know too much,” Ratima acknowledged. “My process in club was just put the ball in and go with the move that you pre-called. Getting into that Mitre 10 Cup environment, you learn to see pictures on the go and react to what the team gives you, instead of just pre-calling stuff. It just gave me a lot more to think about

“Coming in this year and getting a couple more starts under the belt, I hadn’t really mastered starting at all, especially at a higher level. It took a wee while for me to sort of get in the mindset and I needed to sit down with the coaches and go right back to the basics, I think, and have a mindset to pass well, kick well, try and get the team rolling and then start looking to exploit areas.

“I was used to coming off the bench and just trying to go 100 per cent straight away and lift that tempo and I think I was starting sort of the wrong way until that change of mindset came in, it made it a lot clearer for me in my role.

Ratima, like former Waikato, Chiefs and All Blacks halfback Kerr-Barlow, is more than happy to go for a run if he spots a gap – plus he’s well attuned to the more physical side of the game.

“Everyone’s sort of getting the feel of the match when you’re starting, on both teams. You’ve got to get the team rolling and do my core role as well and then as the game goes on, you have to trust yourself that if something opens up, you see the space. For me, my mindset is if I can do my core roles well, anything extra is a bonus.

“I enjoy the physicality of it as well. I really enjoy getting out there and putting a tackle on. It helps you get into the game as well. I enjoy the defence side of everything, I love getting involved, love getting in the front line. It definitely tires me out about but I really enjoy that part of it.”

While Roe was a big loss to Waikato part-way through the season, having a young player of Ratima’s calibre to step into the No 9 jersey was a huge blessing for a side who suffered their fair share of misfortune throughout the season.

Although Waikato were actually able to take part in the NPC – unlike Auckland, North Harbour and Northland – they were forced to spend the latter half of the competition playing away from home due to restrictions in the province.

“When we came back and found out there was Covid in Hamilton, we had to all get tests and then get out of the region,” Ratima said. “We had to go stay over in Tauranga for almost two months. It was kind of tough going for the boys, not being able to see their families, but it might have been a blessing in disguise because it really tightened us up.”

Thankfully, the restrictions eased heading into the week of the grand final and after top seeds Hawke’s Bay were shocked by Tasman in their semi, Waikato were granted a home final at Waikato Stadium.

“It all worked out in the end, getting that home semi in Rotorua was really good and getting the win there was huge for us.

“Hearing that Tasman tipped up Hawke’s Bay was exciting because it meant we had that home final and then leading into the next week, we did our training on Monday and we’d sort of given up hope of coming home until after the season but they ended up opening the borders.

“The boys got to go home, see their families and sort of get refreshed before going into the final. It really boosted our numbers as well because there were a few boys stuck here that couldn’t come over. It was awesome, it brought the whole group back together.”

The 23-20 victory added Ratima and his teammates’ names to the record books to cap off what evolved into an excellent season for the young halfback, who has now earned a deserved break and will spend some time with the family before diving back into the pre-season with the Chiefs early next year.

“I’m pretty happy with where everything’s at now and obviously I’ve just got to keep grinding, keep getting better,” Ratima said. “I’m pretty lucky to be in the environment I’m in, getting to work with guys like Brad Weber and stuff. I’m pretty keen to get in and hopefully learn as much as I can.”

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