Hurricanes title window is still open
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM BY TEAM: In the seventh instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Hurricanes. It will be followed by the rest of the New Zealand teams and then the Australian conference.
The title defence didn’t quite go the way the Hurricanes wanted in 2017. One decent half away from their third consecutive final, the Wellington-based franchise collapsed against the Lions conceding 34 second-half points to end their championship encore.
The team finished with a 12-3 record – one of their best ever - but they relinquished the top spot in the conference to the Crusaders and were swept by the Chiefs in their two derbies. It was a successful year, but it won’t satisfy those in the organisation who know that the team is in the middle of its greatest era – the time is now to win titles.
Having locked up Barrett for three years in 2016, re-signing Thomas Perenara last year for another four years was critical in retaining the team’s spine. Perenara and Barrett at 25 and 26-years-old respectively, hold the hopes of the franchise having held the starting halves positions since 2012.
While the World Rugby Player of the Year is in his prime, the Hurricanes have a decent chance. Barrett has transformed into Super Rugby’s most dangerous man over the last two seasons. It’s hard to believe in 2015 he had just two try assists - in the last two seasons he has the most of any player with 21.
Of greater concern will be how Dane Coles recovers from off-season surgery after being derailed in 2017 by injuries. If the 31-year-old can return to regular game time, the dynamic hooker will lead a pack that includes breakout star Vaea Fifita and hometown favourite Ardie Savea.
All Blacks debutant Asafo Aumua may see time off the bench if Coles isn’t healthy. The Hurricanes coaches will need to weigh up impact over stability when determining who gets the bench role, deciding whether or not to unleash Aumua or stick with the reliable Riccitelli.
Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape stole headlines in 2017 with their try-scoring feats, but it is easily forgotten that Matt Proctor was having a career year before having suffered an injury. All three will be back in a strong Canes midfield. Fullbacks Milner-Skudder and Jordie Barrett will be looking to come back stronger from injury, and no player has more riding on 2017 than Julian Savea.
The Hurricanes have an embarrassment of riches in the backs, the main concern will be whether the young pack can set the platform. A number of rising young players could be called upon to start – Alex Fidow, Isaia Walker-Leawere and Reed Prinsep.
Unheralded players such as Brad Shields, James Blackwell, Chris Eves and Blade Thompson will provide valuable roles.
The Hurricanes will be tested this year, but if they don’t make the finals we will be shocked. Their toughest opponents will be the road trip to South Africa and the Crusaders.
NZ Conference Placing: Second
Player of the Year: Beauden Barrett
Rookie of the Year: Asafo Aumua
Breakout Player of the Year: Reed Prinsep
Best Signing: Gareth Evans
Super Rugby Placing: Semifinalists
Best finish: Champions in 2016
Worst finish: Eleventh in 2004 and 2013
In: Asafo Aumua (Wellington), Jamie Booth (Manawatu), Finlay Christie (Chiefs), Murray Douglas (Rebels), Gareth Evans (Highlanders), Alex Fidow (Wellington), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Rebels), Sam Henwood (Counties Manukau), Johan Lowe (Hawke's Bay), Toby Smith (Rebels), Thomas Va'a (Wellington), Isaia Walker-Leawere (Wellington), Ihaia West (Blues).
Out: Mark Abbott (Red Sparks), Pita Ahki (Connacht), Leni Apisai (Blues), Otere Black (Blues), James Broadhurst (retired), Geoffrey Cridge (Hawke's Bay), Callum Gibbins (Glasgow), Toa Halafihi (Lyon), Cory Jane (Brave Lupus), James O'Reilly (Wellington), Kylem O'Donnell (Taranaki), Hugh Renton (Hawke's Bay), Chris Smylie (North Harbour), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Chiefs), Loni Uhila (Clermont).
Squad: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Alex Fidow, Reg Goodes, Ben May, Toby Smith, Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, James Blackwell, Murray Douglas, Michael Fatialofa, Sam Lousi, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Gareth Evans, Vaea Fifita, Sam Henwood, Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Blade Thomson, Jamie Booth, Finlay Christie, Thomas Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Thomas Va'a, Ihaia West, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam, Jonah Lowe, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea.
* Don't miss the rest New Zealand Conference and also the Australian conference in the coming weeks.