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Rugby: Crunch time on the high veldt for shaky Canes

Beauden Barrett should be left to direct play. Photo / Getty Images
Beauden Barrett should be left to direct play. Photo / Getty Images

The Hurricanes face a pivotal fortnight on the South African high veldt of Pretoria and Bloemfontein which will likely define their Super Rugby season.

After an 18-16 loss to the Stormers which places them mid-table, there is little respite for coach Mark Hammett's side. Their next two opponents - the Bulls and Cheetahs - have had solid seasons, placing them in a gridlock with the Sharks and Stormers for South African conference supremacy. Ahead of this morning's matches, the Bulls had not lost at home, while the Cheetahs had lost only their opening match to the Sharks.

It shapes as an intimidating week for the Hurricanes but a solitary win could make the difference between a finals spot or reverting to the respective ninth and eighth results of Hammett's first two seasons in charge. When the Hurricanes return, they face the Chiefs with seven regular season weeks left.

The news is mixed on the Hurricanes availability front. Motu Matu'u broke his right forearm in the loss to the Stormers, which, with first-choice hooker Dane Coles out with fractured cheekbone, leaves them vulnerable at hooker.

Ash Dixon has replaced Matu'u in the 25-man squad with prop Reggie Goodes as back-up.

Hammett says that is their immediate solution but they are in discussion with the New Zealand Rugby Union about cover.

"We'll make sure we have a decent look at the [NZRU reserve] pool. We should have a final decision in a couple of days."

In contrast, Julian Savea returns for the tour, allowing him to temporarily step away from the spotlight of his pending assault charges. Hammett said it was unreasonable to expect Savea to be out of the game for up to two months. Savea's return will stabilise the back three with Andre Taylor at fullback and Alapati Leiua on the other wing.

It also means the Beauden Barrett No15 experiment is unlikely to be repeated. Taylor provided a better running and counter-attacking influence against the Stormers and scored one of the Hurricanes' two tries.

Barrett, after two weeks in the fullback role against the Blues and the Force, should be left to direct play, as he did on Friday. He also needs to work on boosting his goalkicking confidence shaken by two successes from six attempts on Friday, something Hammett suggested made the difference in the result.

Barrett's ability to spark matters was seen with his bullet-like flat pass that made the try to winger Matt Proctor. If that was bullet-like, Bryan Habana was the proverbial laser beam as he charged down Barrett's attempted conversion from a relatively wide angle - a pivotal play in a match decided by two points.

"Bryan's charge-down [of the conversion] was a big moment," said Stormers coach Allister Coetzee. "I haven't seen that done in rugby in a long time. That shows you the class of Bryan - he's always thinking, always using his head in the game."

The Hurricanes were courageous against the Stormers, especially after a week in the shadow of the Savea shenanigans - but they still struggled to contain rolling mauls and get better body position running into tackles. That will be paramount against the traditionally monstrous Bulls pack.

The Stormers were so merciless in keeping possession and momentum that the Hurricanes were forced, on occasion, to drag down mauls. The visitors' platform from set pieces was particularly powerful. The Hurricanes' difficulty in countering it saw referee Steve Walsh yellow card Jeremy Thrush in the 32nd minute.

Video evidence suggested Ben Franks was lucky not to suffer the same fate midway through the first half. When it's done in the Hurricanes' 22 it also takes on the sinister look of a professional foul. Better body position and more numbers to the maul seem logical answers, although that puts greater pressure on the defence out wide once the ball's released. Something to ponder ...

Formidable Stormers defence meant the Hurricanes struggled to break the advantage line. Better body position would seem the answer to dealing with such punishing tackles. Shoulders drove up into chests which, with explosive pumps of the legs, prevented the Hurricanes getting front foot ball. Stormers No8 Duane Vermeulen was an example of powerful running worth emulating.

- Herald on Sunday

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