Super Rugby Pacific: Rookies battle to replace Richie Mo'unga in prized Crusaders No.10 jersey

Taha Kemara is fully aware of the great opportunity and great responsibility lying before him.

As the newlook Crusaders attempt to keep their run of Super Rugby championships going - without former coach Scott Robertson and a swag of now-departed All Blacks - filling the coveted No.10 jersey looms as a high priority.

Previously occupied by two greats of the game - Richie Mo'unga and, before him, Dan Carter - the first-five position is now totally up for grabs, with a trio of hopefuls next in line.

Taha Kemara and Rivez Reihana.
Taha Kemara and Rivez Reihana. Photo credit: Getty Images

The heir apparent would seem to be Fergus Burke, Mo'unga's understudy for the past four seasons with 39 Super Rugby caps to his name - many of them at fullback last season - but he will miss the opening rounds of the competition with an Achilles tendon injury suffered during the 2023 NPC playoffs for Canterbury.

That leaves Kemara, 20, and newcomer Rivez Reihana, 23, competing to steer the ship in the short term, depending on how successful they are in Burke's absence.

Neither are rookies by the letter of the law - each have a handful of previous Super Rugby appearances to their names for the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively - but this represents the biggest challenge of their young careers. 

"I've taken a real different role this year," said Kemara. "Last year was stepping back and learning opportunities.

"This year, I'm getting the reps in this pre-season, still learning. Rivez is a top quality player and he's settling into this environment quite well.

"Being a young age, you have to step up into the 10 jersey, if that's the end scenario. I have to be more vocal, go over the detail when I go home and being a real leader, stepping out of my comfort zone.... being able to lead a team with guys more experience than me, but that's having confidence in myself and them having confidence in me too."

The pair have been pitted against each other in the pre-season, with the rivalry bringing out the best in each.

"There's nothing better than having good competition, but the relationship we have is quite strong and we just want whatever's best for the team," said Kemara. "Whoever ends up in that 10 jersey for round one will definitely deserve it."

Both Kemara and Reihana have played at U19 World Cups, but commanding the respect of your peers is completely different to bossing around seasoned veterans. Incumbent All Blacks have only rejoined their Super Rugby franchises this week, but even in those few days, the internationals have been impressed.

"It's been a battle," observed assistant coach James Marshall. "They've both put their hands up massively in the pre-season.

"We've split into two teams and I've loved how they've driven their respective sides. Both have shown really good leadership.

Fergus Burke in action for the Crusaders.
Fergus Burke in action for the Crusaders. Photo credit: Photosport

"We've had feedback from Will Jordan coming back, really impressed with how they've run the ship and their calm demeanour for such young players."

The acid test for Kemara and Reihana will come on the Crusader's upcoming England tour, where they'll command a line-up without its All Blacks.

"Their position will probably be decided over there in the UK," said Marshall. "It's exciting to see who will stand up."

Burke will also stay home to continue his rehab.  

"I saw him jogging yesterday, which is awesome," said Marshall. "I think he's recovering really well.

"I don't think they'll bring the timeline forward at all, but when it's up, I think he'll be ready to go straight into it. When you come back from those, sometimes it takes a while to get going, but all accounts, he'll come back ready to go."