Super Rugby Pacific preview: Jordie Barrett and Ardie Savea key to Hurricanes hopes
OPINION: It was hoped that the signing of two-time Rugby World Cup-winning prop Owen Franks from Northampton Saints last May could help launch Super Rugby’s Hurricanes into bona fide title contenders as well.
Three-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders, the 34-year-old, 108 Test stalwart has seen and done it all in his trophy-laden career and would bring the necessary grunt and experience that Jason Holland’s tight five have been . has been sorely lacking in recent years.
But that plan fell apart just months after signing on the dotted line when Franks broke an Achilles tendon. He was initially expected to be ruled out for the entire Super Rugby Pacific season, but Franks delivered encouraging news this month when he said Things he was confident of a return in April.
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Either way, the Hurricanes need to bounce back from a decidedly mixed 2021, in which the capital’s men finished lowest in Super Rugby Aotearoa with two wins from eight matches (both against fourth-placed Highlanders ), but held up better against the weaker ones. Australian opposition in the Trans-Tasman competition, rising from four out of five.
A narrow loss to the Brumbies in Canberra proved costly as the Hurricanes had to settle for a fourth place finish and once again regret what might have been.
Six years have now passed since the Canes last won the Super Rugby title or finished top of the domestic peloton, and their fans are starting to get restless.
Now in his third year at the helm, Holland is under pressure to start delivering more consistent results. Understandably, as he has a team with seasoned All Blacks and promising young talent who have underperformed under his leadership.
Holland’s quest has been aided by the return of veteran half-back and club legend TJ Perenara, who after publicly flirting with an NRL switcher opted to return to the Cake Tin after a short stint in Japan. His presence and skill will be essential if the Hurricanes are to do more than just make up the numbers, even if he will miss the first few weeks with a knee injury.
The 30-year-old will be joined in Wellington by ex-All Black Dominic Bird, who arrives from France to boost the club’s lockdown stocks. These two additions bolster an already strong roster that, while likely to be more competitive, arguably still lacks the quality and depth of Crusaders, Blues, and Chiefs.
After the loss of powerful midfielder Ngani Laumape at Stade Français, the importance of last year’s captain Ardie Savea to the Hurricanes cause cannot be overstated. The loose All Blacks striker sets an example with his ball-carrying ability, relentless work-rate and breakdown supremacy.
Savea is one of the best openside flankers in world rugby and is part of a rapidly improving pack at Sky Stadium that includes new signings Bird, Franks and Blake Gibson, All Blacks duo Tyrel Lomax and Asafo Aumua, and youngster bully Alex Fidow, among others.
Add in world-class hooker Dane Coles (if he can stay fit and on the paddock), and you have the makings of a formidable front eight.
Indeed, it is in the defenses that reside the main problems of the Hurricanes. The crucial No.10 position remains a lingering problem for the Netherlands, with incumbent Jackson Garden-Bacho returning from injury; a reliable but limited performer who lacks the speed and tactical acumen of the country’s top pivots.
Maybe it’s time for Ruben Love to shine and claim the jersey. The 20-year-old son of former Māori All Black Matene Love started at 10 in the Hurricanes’ first pre-season hit against the Blues, suggesting he will be the Netherlands’ first choice for the next campaign .
With Perenara barking directives from halfback, Love has the potential to be one of the Hurricanes’ standouts this season. New Zealand Under-20 representative Aidan Morgan will provide a back-up but is still learning the ropes at this level.
Of course, the Hurricanes already have an X factor in their ranks, in the form of Jordie Barrett. When he is at his mercurial best, the youngest brother Barrett has few peers. Witness his one-man demolition for the Highlanders in Dunedin last March, when he bagged all 30 points (three tries, three conversions and three penalties) in a virtuoso performance.
Indeed, since moving to fullback, the 24-year-old utility has produced some of his finest performances in a Hurricanes jersey and established himself as the team’s MVP. If he can improve his consistency and try not to overdo it himself, then Barrett has the talent to take the Canes to the next level.
Whether that will be enough to make the Hurricanes worthy challengers to the title remains to be seen. The Crusaders, Blues and Chiefs all brought eye-catching reinforcements that mark them as the teams to beat again this season.
However, the men in yellow can beat anyone in their day and have enough to finish as the best of the rest, ahead of the Highlanders, newcomers Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika and the five Australian teams.
And once you enter the knockout rugby playoff system, who knows? Realistically, another season of player development – with clear signs of progress – is looming. Anything less, and Holland will have to answer some uncomfortable questions from head office.
IN ONE LOOK
Hurricanes in 2022:
Forwards: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, James O’Reilly, Tevita Mafileo, Alex Fidow, Xavier Numia, Tyrel Lomax, Pasilio Tosi, Pouri Rakete-Stones, James Blackwell, Dominic Bird, Scott Scrafton, Justin Sangster, Brayden Iose, Du’Plessis Kirifi , Reed Prinsep, Blake Gibson, Ardie Savea, Tyler Laubscher, Devan Flanders, Caleb Delany, Te Kamaka Howden, Owen Franks, Isaia Walker-Leawere.
Back: Jamie Booth, TJ Perenara, Cam Roigard, Aidan Morgan, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Ruben Love, Teihorangi Walden, Billy Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Bailyn Sullivan, Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett, Pepesana Patafilo, Salesi Rayasi, Wes Goosen, Josh Moorby.
Ins: Perenara (Japan), Franks (England), Bird (France), Gibson (Blues), Sullivan (Chiefs).
Exits : Liam Mitchell (Italy), Ngani Laumape (France), Danny Toala (Moana Pasifika), Lolagi Visinia (Moana Pasifika), Gareth Evans (Highlanders), Vaea Fifita (England), Fraser Armstrong (retired), Ricky Riccitelli (Blues), Vince Aso (Japan).
TAB odds: $8