The New Zealanders
Yet another New Zealand coach has succumbed to the lure of a big payday in Europe. Chris Boyd has not left yet, but is set for his final season with the Canes before he moves to Northampton Saints. He will certainly be looking to make it two titles in three years to crown a successful four years with the Wellington based franchise.
He has nurtured one of the most exciting teams in world rugby. A team that plays a fast, open style of rugby that revolves around the sublime skills of Beaudin Barrett at flyhalf and the nuggety enterprise of TJ Perenara at 9, supported by some of the finest strike runners in the world today.
Along the way to last year’s final the Hurricanes scored the most tries in Super Rugby history. They crossed the line 97 times, breaking the previous record set by the Lions in 2016 of 81.
Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso were the competition’s top try-scorers, with scoring 15 and 14 respectively.
Although they lost to the Crusaders in the final, they were the only side to beat them in 2017.
The Hurricanes kick their season off with two away games, travelling to South Africa to face the Bulls at Loftus, before moving across the Atlantic to play the Jaguares. These are not fixtures that will worry them much, and they will be glad t get their long-distance travels done so early in the season.
Next is the Crusaders, back home at Westpac Stadium in Wellington.
They then have their first bye, before hosting the Highlanders, hopping across to OZ to play the Rebels and then hosting the Sharks in Napier. Then it is the Chiefs, still at home in Wellington.
Their second bye arrives in Round 10, before they welcome the Sunwolves and then the Lions to Wellington.
After the Lions, they head to Auckland to play the Blues, host the Reds back home again, and then it is the Crusaders again, but this time in Christchurch, followed by the Highlanders in Dunedin, the Brumbies in Canberra.
Back home again, they face the Blues, before the final regular season game against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
This is a very comfortable fixture schedule, with minimal travel. Their trip to South Africa and the Argentine is very early on, while players are still fresh, and their two opponents will not make them quiver in their boots. The two trips to Australia are well spaced apart, and each OZ trip is followed by a home fixture.
Compared to the draw dished out to the Highlanders, the ‘Canes have the softest draw imaginable. Smacks of favouritism by the fixture list fundis?
I mentioned earlier that the Hurricanes have some of the finest strike runners in the game of rugby. The midfield options are mouth-watering, with Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, and a fresh Jordie Barrett lined up as their first three choices. Barrett has been out of the game with a shoulder injury, and he has used his time-out to pack on some muscle. He has, apparently, added some 6kg of muscle to an already muscular physique.
The thinking behind his bulking up is that it would make him more suited to playing in midfield, giving him more power to break through the tackle. Add this to the battering ram that is Ngani Laumape, together with the searing pace of their outside backs, and the Hurricanes look formidable.
A number of players left the franchise at the end of 2017. Amongst the bigger names we find James Broadhurst, who has retired, Cory Jane went off to Japan, Mark Abbott too. Pita Ahki has gone to Connacht, Callum Gibbins to Glasgow, Toa Halafihi to Lyon, and Loni Uhila to Clermont.
Three of the squad have swapped Super franchises, Leni Apisai, and Otere Black have joined Tana Umaga at the Blues, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has gone to the Chiefs.
Add in the news that Reggie Goodes, one of their stalwart props, has been forced into retirement as a result of too many concussive injuries. He is only 26 and still had years of rugby ahead of him.
The Hurricanes have also done some recruiting from other Super Rugby teams, with Finlay Christie (Chiefs), Murray Douglas (Rebels), Gareth Evans (Highlanders), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Rebels), Toby Smith (Rebels), and Ihaia West (Blues) all joining up.
The overall squad still looks formidable, with more than its fair share of All Blacks, and some hugely talented youngsters coming through.
Dane Coles will have the U/20 sensation, Asafo Aumua, to back him up in the hooking berth, and then there is Vaea Fifita, the man Steve Hansen called “the best athlete I’ve had anything to do with, and just about one of the fastest people we’ve got in the team so that’s not bad for a 6”.
On paper, the Hurricanes look unbeatable. They are loaded with talent, skills, and stars. They have recruited well too, bringing in some real talent, while not losing too many of their really big names.
This is a well-balanced, settled outfit, and they could go all the way, again.
With just one minor niggle. Their forward pack has sometimes been a bit wobbly. This is the one weakness in the outfit. And now they have the news that their experienced prop, Reggie Goodes, has been forced to retire after just one concussion too many…
I expect them to be contenders at playoff time.