The fourth in a five-part series of writers from the various New Zealand Super Rugby franchises giving their season ending exit interviews. The Hurricanes.
“It’s déjà vu all over again” is a quote attributed to New York Yankees baseball great Yogi Berra, but it could equally apply to the Hurricanes 2019 season. Just like last year they finished second by points but fourth under the conference model, and their season came to an end against THEM in Christchurch; although Sam Whitelock’s DIRTY CHEATING HAND will ensure he has pantomime villain status in the capital for coming years.
Going into the season there wasn’t much change. There was still that spine of All Blacks, that they’ll move the ball, that the scrum and lineout were the big concerns, and whether they had the ability to match the Crusaders, let alone beat them.
And really, that all stayed true. The early season was bumpy, in part to those enforced All Black rest periods. They snuck past the Waratahs in Sydney, lost to THEM down there, squashed the Brumbies in Palmy, needed a last-minute penalty to beat the Highlanders at the Tin, drew away with the struggling Chiefs, and then had to run-down the Stormers. That was four wins from six, but it was a rollercoaster.
Then came the rematch with the Crusaders, and a thoroughly comprehensive 8-32 defeat.
A run of five wins followed before stumbling to a loss to the Jaguares at Westpac that effectively ended any chance of running down the Crusaders for top spot. Wins in Africa over the Sharks and Lions and back at home over the Blues meant a home quarter.
Somehow, despite it never seldom comfortable, the Hurricanes had won 12 games, more than anyone else.
The quarter-final saw the Bulls come and go, before the déjà vu happened all over again.
At least the only two teams to beat the Hurricanes this year are the ones contesting the final.
Ardie. Savea. Delivered a monster campaign even when switching between 7 and 8 (and a cameo on the wing) and should (must?) be the starting openside for the AB’s in the Rugby Championship. Lock James Blackwell had a breakout season in the engine room until he went MIA in the semi-final, and Chase Tiatia showed his unpredictable talents when given the chance.
It also says something about expectations when TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, and Ngani Laumape can be merely excellent, yet criticised for not being outstanding every time out.
The set pieces. It’s a staple of being a Hurricanes fan that they’re the first cause for worry, and that’s what transpired. The scrum had its moments but was seldom dominant and the lineout struggled badly at times; as much of a talent he is Asafo Aumua must address his glaring issues with his throwing accuracy and things were much improved when Dane Coles made it back. There was also the curious case of Vaea Fifita, who got his wish to spend more time at 6 than at lock yet probably played his way out of an All Blacks place and had his regular problems with his tackling technique and general discipline. And at what point do we give up on the idea of Jordie Barrett, midfield back?
But the glaring one was that for a team that trades on the unexpected, the Hurricanes could be too predictable at times with no Plan B when it was clear that Plan A wasn’t going to work. The home trouncing by Them showed that, and it seemed the same was happening for the first half on Saturday night; but perhaps upping the tempo to a level that few can match might be the answer.
WHERE TO IN 2020?
Unlike some of the other franchises, the Hurricanes aren’t beset by post-World Cup departures. But – and it’s a big BUT – is whether Beauden Barrett signs back on or decides to join the moribund team that occupies Eden Park; the drop off from him to anyone not named Richie Mo’unga to run the cutter in the playing stocks is precipitous.
Should Beauden stay, then the mix shouldn’t be too radically different from this year. Tyrell Lomax should shore up the front row and become that solid anchor that the team haven’t had in years (perhaps going as far back as Neemia Tialata!) and the addition of Scott Scrafton adds depth to the locking stocks. The one current remaining area of need is who will occupy the centre jersey with Matt Proctor off to Northampton – will they stay internal and look towards oft-injured pair Peter Umaga-Jensen and Wes Goosen, elevate his younger brother Billy, or go elsewhere.
If Beauden departs though, that’s one very large hole try and fill, and getting past that mob from Christchurch gets a lot more difficult.
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