Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: May looms as defining for Hurricanes

Samoan international Tusi Pisi will pull on the No 12 jumper for the first time in his Hurricanes career as he replaces an out-of-sorts Tim Bateman. Photo / Getty Images.
Samoan international Tusi Pisi will pull on the No 12 jumper for the first time in his Hurricanes career as he replaces an out-of-sorts Tim Bateman. Photo / Getty Images.

The month of May is make or break time in Hurricanes' country.

With four unforgiving games and a bye mixed in between, Mark Hammett's side will likely know during the June break whether they're delaying the inevitable or if the international window will serve as valuable rest before the final three regular season games and the playoffs.

A stuttering 5-4 campaign from the Hurricanes sees them in ninth spot on the Super Rugby ladder heading in to this weekend but only four points separate them and the fifth-placed Blues.

As it was last year, the wildcard spots will be hotly contested and every point a side can earn from here on in will be crucial.

The problem for the Hurricanes is the four games they have this month happen to include a pair of fixtures in South Africa, a home outing against the defending-champion Chiefs then a jaunt to Canberra to meet the table-topping Brumbies.

The plus side is if they come through them with two or three wins and a couple of bonus points they'll know they can foot it with anyone in the competition but if they're sent packing then the season will be as good as cooked.

If Hammett looks at the points table during the next week or so he will rue his side's inability to put a fourth try on the woeful Force a couple of weeks ago and will curse the Palmerston North wind that sent Beauden Barrett's goal-kicking askew last Friday night.

That 18-16 loss to the Stormers in Manawatu was an admirable forward performance but was ultimately four points gone begging for the Hurricanes who should have put the men from Cape Town away.

Too often this season the Hurricanes have been their own worst enemy with an inability to close out sides proving costly while their slew of handling errors would make a schoolboy 3rd XV cringe.

On Sunday morning the Hurricanes will meet the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria and it doesn't seem like a venue to help breathe life in to your season.

In fact the thin air at just over 1200m above sea level at Loftus may leave the Hurricanes gasping for breath as they struggle to keep their playoff hopes alive.

They're down to their third-string hooker in Ash Dixon while the reserve rake Reggie Goodes is a converted prop.

One thing that will give the side belief is the effort they put in up front last week against a committed Stormers outfit.

Blindside flanker Brad Shields has found another level in the past few games and is beginning to fill out the enormous potential he possesses.

Prop Ben Franks, lock Jeremy Thrush and openside Karl Lowe all impressed against the Stormers and they will have to meet the Bulls head on this week if they want to lay the platform for their backline who have stuttered recently.

With Barrett back at pivot they should rediscover their attacking flair and it will be interesting to see how Tusi Pisi goes in the No 12 jersey in place of a jaded Tim Bateman.

Pisi's running game and kicking threat could complement Barrett nicely and Bateman was clearly in need of a rest after seemingly playing non-stop for the past year for the Hurricanes, Wellington Lions and the New Zealand Maori.

Julian Savea returns this week from a self-imposed stand-down following his common assault charge and it will be intriguing to see how he plays given the legal problem he has hanging over him.

Following their run with the Bulls the Hurricanes head to Bloemfontein to tackle an upstart Cheetahs side who have been surprisingly useful this year and currently sit in sixth place.

Hurricanes: Andre Taylor, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (captain), Tusi Pisi, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara; Victor Vito, Karl Lowe, Brad Shields, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Ash Dixon, Ben Franks. Reserves: Reggie Goodes, Ben May, Mark Reddish, Faifili Levave, Jack Lam, Chris Smylie, Tim Bateman.


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