Brett Cameron, still just in the early stages of his career, has experienced the full spectrum of highs and lows that come with being a professional rugby player.
In 2018, following a breakout season for Canterbury, Cameron was a surprise call-up for the All Blacks squad to travel to Japan. At that stage, the Whanganui-born flyhalf had played a single match for the Crusaders and just two dozen for the Canterbury provincial side.
His talent was unquestionable, however, and when Cameron was announced as one of the newest All Blacks, there was a sense of inevitability that Canterbury had unearthed just one more prodigy to wear the 10 jersey.
There’s simply no better place to hone your talents as a first five than in Crusaders country, where the likes of NZ representatives Richie Mo’unga, Tom Taylor, Colin Slade, Aaron Mauger and Dan Carter all earned their stripes in the last two decades.
There’s also a long list of men who also came close to the black jersey, such as Stephen Brett and Cameron McIntyre, but didn’t quite make that final step up.
The seemingly innate ability that the Canterbury region has for fostering playmaking talent is both a blessing and a curse for young players. While learning from the best and improving your abilities is obviously necessary for long-term growth, there’s always a man standing in front of you as you strive to earn a starting sport in the successful Crusaders side.
Slade, Brett and most recently, Mitchell Hunt, all moved away from the region in the quest for more minutes while others, such as Tyler Bleyendaal and Hamish Gard, departed for foreign lands before they ever really cracked starting berths in Super Rugby.
While Cameron certainly doesn’t have any immediate plans to move away from Canterbury – the region that moulded him into the player he is today – he’s already experienced some of the costs that come with playing for New Zealand’s best first five talent factory.
“Some of the weeks can be tough,” Cameron told RugbyPass. “I think there have probably been a lot of weeks in a row where I didn’t actually play any rugby at all and it can get tough when that happens.
“But I obviously knew that was going to be the challenge here and I just prepare every week as if I were playing.”
When Richie Mo’unga, who started in New Zealand’s crucial knockout games at least year’s World Cup, is the man in front of you, it’s not hard to predict that minutes may be hard to come by. That’s a fact that Cameron has well and truly comes to terms with – but that doesn’t mean the young first five isn’t steadily improving.
The Crusaders are better than most at nurturing their young players waiting on the wings – it’s why they’ve rarely had any blips on the radar since they won their first Super Rugby title in 1998 and it’s why they’ve performed so consistently this year despite losing men like Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks overseas.
There are only so minutes spots on the park and only so many minutes available in a week, which is why Super Rugby teams have to resort to methods of up-skilling their young players, despite them not necessarily taking part in full Super Rugby matches.
Cameron learned that when he was first brought into the Crusaders set-up not long after he made the move from Whanganui to Christchurch.
"I was always having words to Jack… I was saying to him, 'Are you ready to move to 12 for me?' And then it eventually turned to, 'Please move to 12 for me.'"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 26, 2020
“It comes back to the awesome development teams that Canterbury has,” Cameron said.
“You only have to look at the percentage of professional rugby players that have come through the Crusaders academy, it’s pretty mind blowing.
“I was actually lucky enough to train with the Crusaders for a lot of the season in 2018, just due to a couple of injuries and stuff and it was good to get a feel of what that was like and get to know a few boys in the group.”
There’s also the Crusaders Knights – the Crusaders ‘B’ side which is used as much for re-introducing injured players to the fold and giving game time to full squad members as it is for developing young players.
“Having the Crusader Knights stuff helps a lot as well,” Cameron said.
“It’s pretty cool to have been on both sides now. Once I was a young guy playing Knights alongside the Crusaders and then this year I actually got to play a Knights game as a Crusader, and it’s great to get to play along with those boys as well.”
When Cameron has spent a lot of time on the bench for the Crusaders in any given weekend, he would sometimes start for the Knights to maintain his match fitness.
“Some weeks, if you’re not playing, you get to play some club footy or a Knights game or something but I think I definitely get a lot out of just even sitting on the bench for a game anyway,” Cameron revealed.
“Even if I do get limited minutes, just building on what we’ve worked on through the week or even just sitting on the bench and listening to the messages that are going out and stuff like that is still useful.
“So I’d definitely take that over playing a full game for another team but I’ve been lucky sometimes to be able to do both. But no, I think I still learn a lot every week just sitting on the bench.”
Only a select group of men get the chance to don the #AllBlacks' 11 &10 jerseys – fewer still get the chance to wear both.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 21, 2020
Mo’unga himself is still just a young player and if he chooses to remain in New Zealand, should be well in the frame for selection for the next World Cup – but that doesn’t deter Cameron, who enjoys working with the more experienced Mo’unga as well as the new man in the team, Fergus Burke.
“Fergus and I are good mates. We obviously played at Canterbury together as well, so we get on well and we push each other at training, as well as Richie,” Cameron said.
“We’re all a similar age, so it’s easy to talk to everyone and Richie bring heaps of experience from his All Blacks stuff, so we just pick his brain as much as we can, and he’s awesome.”
With regular starts still not likely to be on the cards for Cameron when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off next month (although the probable higher rates of attrition could help him get his foot in the door), what are the one-time All Black’s goals for the remainder of 2020?
“I have to make sure I’m competing at training and every session, I’m pushing Richie as much as I can,” said Cameron.
“Probably also just creating opportunities for myself where I can grow – so putting myself in challenging situations where I make mistakes and get to learn off them. And then, just in the times I’m not in there, making sure I’m alongside Richie the whole time in terms of his prep and learning off him.”
While there’s no doubt that any Super Rugby franchise would be more than happy to take Cameron off the Crusaders’ hands and will certainly be chasing the first five’s signature if he doesn’t re-sign with the Crusaders after this season, Cameron is happy where is, learning and growing as a player.
A career in professional sports isn’t a sprint, after all – it’s a marathon – and sometimes you simply need to bide your time.
“This is the only place I want to be at the moment and I’ve learnt so much already,” Cameron said.
“I guess it is tough at times but you know that you’re going to get an opportunity and it’s all going to be worth it if you can take it.
“You’ve just got to roll with it and make the most of the time you do get – but it’s still been good this year, I’m just excited to be in the 23 each week.”
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