By Scott MacLean
The Hurricanes go into the 2017 campaign in the unusual position of defending champions, having finally gotten the monkey off their backs. Also unusual is the lack of turnover amongst the first-choice selections, and uniquely they have both the current World Player of the Year in Beauden Barrett and one of the other finalists in skipper Dane Coles.
IN: Sam Lousi, Reed Prinsep, Toa Halafihi, Kylem O’Donnell, Ben Lam, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Jordie Barrett
OUT: Iopu Iopu-Aso, Tony Lamborn, Christian Lloyd, Motu Matu’u, Hisa Sasagi, Jamison Gibson-Park, Willis Halaholo, James Marshall, TJ Va’a, Jason Woodward, Victor Vito.
Arguably a fair chunk of the preferred side picks itself. Up front Coles is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and alongside Reggie Goodes and Jeff Toomaga-Allen will look to reassert themselves after missing the final through injury though The Tongan Bear (aka Loni Uhila) and Ben May who started that game – and both spent time playing Wellington club rugby – aren’t bad as backups go. Ricky Riccitelli forced his way from the wider training group into being Coles’ deputy by season’s end and will be the choice in that role again this year.
Lock is one area where depth will be tested out of the gate. James Broadhurst’s concussion woes (18 months and counting) mean he won’t be considered anytime soon, while Vaea Fifita’s ankle injury from the 10’s will keep him out for a few weeks. Mark Abbott and Michael Fatialofa emerged from being virtual unknowns to star last season, and together with Blade Thomson (whose 2016 season was cut short by injury) and ex-Waratah Sam Lousi will shoulder the load.
One question will be who fills Vito’s place at the back of the scrum. Both Brad Shields and Ardie Savea have experience there but are better suited on the sides, so there’s an opportunity for the versatile Thomson, rookie Toa Halafihi, or Hugh Renton – who spent last season throwing people around Wellington club fields for Freak’s beloved Old Boys-University Goats – to establish themselves. Callum Gibbins will back up Savea while Reed Prinsep is an intriguing prospect and hoping for better luck than his sole appearance with his home town Crusaders last year where he was knocked out a minute after coming on.
TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett are the world’s best 9-10 combo. Otere Black ably deputised for the latter last year when he missed time with injury, while Taranaki duo Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Kylem O’Donnell will vie for the backup halfback job.
Going into last year the big question was how the Hurricanes would fill the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith-shaped holes in midfield. Matt Proctor eventually claimed the #13 jersey, but the place inside him was a rotating door of Halaholo, ex-Warrior Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso; the letter two return and seem likely to again split time. Across the back Julian Savea, old man Cory Jane, and the returning Nehe Milner-Skudder appear to be the preferred alignment, but Savea would want a better campaign than his last two – remember he was dropped to the bench for the playoffs in favour of Jason Woodward – otherwise he might be looking at another one of Freak’s OBU favourites in Wes Goosen (and that’s pronounced with a ‘G’ and not the South Africanised ‘H’) wearing his #11.
The wildcard in all of this is Jordie Barrett, and just how and where he is deployed given his adeptness at both second-five and fullback. Does he line up outside his brother, at the back (with Jane the likely one to move to the bench and Milner-Skudder to the wing) or as weapon off the bench like Beauden did in his early days? Probably a mix of all three.
It’s not all perfect though. There’s a fair bit of reliance that players who stepped up in a major way last year will maintain that level of performance, and that critical members of the squad (particularly Beauden, Coles, and Perenara) don’t miss extended periods of time given the drop-off to their deputies.
The title defence kicks off this Saturday in Tokyo against the Sunwolves at 5.15pm New Zealand Time.
Going back-to-back won’t be easy, but this group could certainly do it.
Follow Scott on Twitter