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11 October 2023
Roigard has made a tremendous start to his international career. Photo: Getty Images

The rise and rise of Cam Roigard continues unabated, reports Liam Napier from France.

Aaron Smith has long held the All Blacks halfback mantle but, as a changing of the guard nears, Cam Roigard appears ready to assume the baton.

For the best part of 12 years, Smith set the standard at the base for the All Blacks. He’s seen off countless challenges in that time – TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Weber among them – to cement his peerless status in the pantheon of great All Blacks No 9s.

Now, though, as Smith prepares to depart to Japan following his World Cup swansong in France, Roigard is rapidly staking his claim to step into the void.

Just as Sam Cane will never replace Richie McCaw, Roigard won’t replace Smith, either. In many respects such comparisons are irrelevant and unfair.

Roigard is a completely different prospect to Smith which, in some respects, enhances his appeal.

The All Blacks have always sought to embrace a range of skills with their halfbacks. Of those pushing to step into Smith’s imminent void, Roigard presents the most complete package – as he has proven at this World Cup.

Crusaders and Tasman halfback Noah Hotham and Cortez Ratima from the Chiefs are others who will increasingly knock on the door of national selection from next year.

Roigard, though, has the inside running. In the space of two years, he has surged from fringe Hurricanes halfback to the lead contender to succeed Smith.

The former speedway saloon driver, who finished second at the New Zealand champs, only committed fulltime to the Hurricanes last year.

Since then he’s earned selection in the All Blacks XV, coming off the bench inside Damian McKenzie against Ireland A in Dublin. An unfortunate injury setback for Perenara then opened the door for Roigard to consistently start for the Hurricanes this year, which put his lethal running threat and booming left boot firmly on the national radar every week.

By the end of the Super Rugby season, Roigard’s claims were irrepressible. He was duly included in the Rugby Championship squad and, at that point, ranked third in line behind Finlay Christie and Smith.
Two eye-catching cameos off the bench – in the victory over the Wallabies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the record defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham – proved Roigard is not overawed by any occasion. His brilliant solo try at Twickenham, where he beat three defenders and sprinted 50-odd metres to score, sparked widespread attention, but his composure behind an inexperienced and well-beaten forward pack shone too.

The All Blacks stubbornly stuck with Christie on the bench for their World Cup opening loss to France – their first group-stage defeat in history – when impact from the bench was notably absent. In their second World Cup pool victory against Namibia, Roigard then sent a statement that he is a must-have inclusion from here on in.

With two tries and two assists, Roigard was in everything for the All Blacks to produce a compelling man of the match effort in his maiden start, in his third Test appearance. While Namibia will never be anywhere near the same league, we may reflect on Roigard’s performance in Toulouse as the night the next All Blacks halfback was born.

In the lead-up to that game, Ardie Savea offered an insight into Roigard’s complex character, having played alongside him at the Hurricanes.

“He’s a quiet assassin, that guy,” Savea says. “He’s really quiet, but deep down he’s a competitor and he doesn’t like losing. For example, Aaron Smith was in the gym this week and he was pumping some good bench press weights, and I see Cam out of the corner of my eye just watching him. It’s awesome to see Cam here, and to think where he’s come from and the journey he’s taken. It’s great he gets that opportunity. He’s a quiet man, but he speaks through his actions.”

Roigard does not dispute his introverted nature. On the field, though, he barks orders and uses his comparative size, strength and breadth of skill to impose his presence.

“I suppose that’s pretty accurate from Ards. He knows me quite well,” Roigard says. “I’m always trying to develop my game, and I know how important communication is out on the field. So I’m trying to be loud when I need to be loud, and then just staying myself off the field.

“I’ve always been competitive. I’ve always tried to chase people in my position, right from Super Rugby to where I am now. That’s a big part of my development. Being competitive and pushing myself and others around me is a big part of trying to be a better player.”

After impressing against Namibia, Roigard did his best to downplay his influential contribution, but it’s already clear he’s made for the Test arena, soaking up every moment of his first World Cup.

“I was fortunate our forwards, with our set-piece dominant, were able to set a dominant platform so we were able to play the attacking style we were after,” Roigard says.

“I was happy to be out there and get my first game at the World Cup. It was a dream come true so for it to unfold the way it did, I’m really grateful.

“My main focus was passing and speed to ruck. I was given plenty of confidence to trust my instincts and play what’s in front of me at times, which was really good for my preparation and took the pressure off a little bit. Having people like Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett running the show outside me made my job pretty easy.”

The All Blacks coaches were suitably impressed, too, with Ian Foster applauding Roigard’s consistent clearance, decision-making and running game. Assistant coach Scott McLeod highlighted another rare commodity.

“He seems to have so much time on the ball for a young fella. It almost goes in slow motion for him,” McLeod said.

“He’s not rushed. He makes really good decisions and he executes in those moments. He finds space; he puts others around him into space. It showed with Damian McKenzie’s try – he made that line break, he assessed what was happening, changed the angle and left the ball in the right place and away Damian went. I don’t know if that’s due to his speedway experience and going fast with everything in danger moments, but he looks quite comfortable.”

As the All Blacks rebuild for the World Cup knockouts, Roigard could now become a focal figure in their attempted revival. He has, surely, usurped Christie into the first-choice squad. The next step is succeeding Smith.

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