Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Hammett enjoying season to savour

That 26-25 victory over a Blues side featuring former Hurricanes Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu is Mark Hammett's high point of a season. Photo / Getty Images
That 26-25 victory over a Blues side featuring former Hurricanes Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu is Mark Hammett's high point of a season. Photo / Getty Images

It is a measure of how far the Hurricanes have come that coach Mark Hammett pauses when asked if he would have taken the team's three-win, two-loss start before the season kicked off.

"I suppose, yes, we would. But we're also realistic," he said. "We've got three wins and two losses and that could easily have been one-win [and four losses] if you think about the Lions and the game on the weekend against the Blues."

That 26-25 victory over a Blues side featuring former Hurricanes Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu at Eden Park is Hammett's high point of a season which has already surprised onlookers who expected him and his team to implode.

Instead of a disaster following the well-documented departures of Weepu, Nonu and Andrew Hore, it has proven to be something of a triumph for the former Crusaders assistant coach.

Before the season started, he promised a new work ethic from his players. He has got that and more. The Hurricanes picked up a victory over the Lions in South Africa - after giving the Stormers a scare in Cape Town in round one - and beat the Force in Perth before losing narrowly at home to the Highlanders. Then came the last-minute thriller against the Blues when Conrad Smith capitalised on a break by Beauden Barrett to score with 15 seconds remaining. Barrett then coolly slotted the conversion for the win.

Captain Smith has been a standout at the Hurricanes in a season when few senior All Blacks have made much of a mark, and Hammett reserves special praise for him. But first comes that work ethic, which the coach has a simple explanation for.

"It's where we've started," he said. "If there's no obvious starting point in terms of your strengths, the best place to start is hard work and that work ethic side of things, and we all know that one of the best places to work on that is your defence because you can't do that on your own.

"There's a reason why we won those [tight] games - it's around that work ethic and never giving up - and hopefully what people are seeing is a pattern and ability to play different styles. That is getting us wins and that's great but what's probably good about close results is we review really honestly and that we keep getting the gains and whether we win or lose I expect our players to be better rugby players by the end of the week."

As for Smith, he is a rock in the middle of a backline showing immense potential in halfback TJ Perenara, first-five Barrett and Andre Taylor, who is proving a revelation after his move from wing to fullback.

"He's been absolutely outstanding," Hammett said of Smith. "One of the reasons I selected him as a captain is because he's a leader 100 per cent of the time. He gets the balance really well and what I like about him is he can be social, he can be the guy who dresses up when we have dress-up parties and get comfortable in that and can have a beer during the week in a social situation. He can speak to a bunch of corporates but he gets the balance. And the other thing is he does not expect someone to do something he won't do.

"From a leadership perspective you can't ask for more and I think he is relishing the challenge of a newer group and bringing that together and he's got guys who will hang off every word he has said because of that."

Hammett appears to be bringing the best out of the younger players in his squad and it would be easy for him to bask in the fact he has put one over his many critics. That's not really Hammett, who possesses a well-rehearsed phrase about vindication.

"I think vindication is served best for people who are vindictive so, for me, not really," he said. "I'm not a guy that holds grudges. I'm pretty focused on what I want to achieve and on this group."

- APNZ

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