Rugby: Now's the time for Hurricanes to make grade

By Daniel Richardson

With the bulk of last year's squad retained, coach Hammett has no excuses for another year of under-achievement.

Marty Banks of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty Images
Marty Banks of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty Images

It's about time the Hurricanes delivered.

Coach Mark Hammett has spoken at length for the past two seasons about the inexperience and youth in his squad but that won't wash in 2014.

Hammett, who starts his fourth year in charge, was able to retain 26 of last year's 32-strong squad and most of these players will now be settling in for their third term under his instruction.

The former All Black is in a contract year and if he wants to have that agreement extended he will need to show this team has moved forward under his regime.

For the past three seasons the Hurricanes have been mired in mediocrity as they finished ninth in 2011, eighth in 2012 and 11th last year. They even suffered the indignity of having one of their franchise unions, Taranaki, cutting and running to the Chiefs in the off season.

Hammett's side were one win and a dose of luck away from the playoffs in 2012 following his now infamous cleanout of the franchise - he axed the likes of Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore at the end of 2011 and long-time halfback Piri Weepu went north to the Blues.

But the team stagnated last season and badly missed the experience of Cory Jane in the back three.

Inconsistency has been their biggest issue. From being blown off the park 48-14 by the Bulls in Pretoria in round 12 to beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein a week later, you just never knew what you would get with the Hurricanes last year.

They will begin their 2014 campaign under immediate duress given the loss of starting loose forwards Victor Vito and Brad Shields, who have knee complaints and could be out for more than a month. Second-five is also an issue following Tim Bateman's knee injury, which leaves new recruits Hadleigh Parkes and Cardiff Vaega fighting it out to partner skipper Conrad Smith in the midfield.

With Jane having returned from a knee reconstruction, the back three looks potent, with All Black Julian Savea on the other wing and wildcard newcomer Marty Banks a good bet to pull on the No15 jersey instead of Andre Taylor.

Inside back pairing TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett have the potential to set this competition alight but need quality ball, so lock is a spot where the Hurricanes can ill-afford to lose troops following Jason Eaton's departure.

All the tools are there for Hurricanes and the addition of former All Black prop John Schwalger will add some beef to the front-row, Hammett just has to find a way for his side to get it together on a regular basis.

Apprentice All Black Ardie Savea could be one of the breakout players of 2014 but it will depend on how he handles the challenge from being an ITM Cup warrior to making an impact in Super Rugby.

Last year the Hurricanes gave away an average of 10.9 penalties per outing, the second-worst mark in the competition behind the Brumbies - that lack of discipline was one of the main factors in their inconsistency.

Another problem was selection.

The Hurricanes coaching staff would love to take back the decision of sending Barrett to fullback for two games last season, which left the All Black disillusioned with the franchise before he ultimately decided to stay in the capital with a new contract.

The long and short of it is this: the Hurricanes need to show significant progress if Hammett wants to come back to the capital in 2015.

The ones to watch

New man: Marty Banks Banks was the story of the 2013 ITM Cup as he led Tasman to a title in the championship division. His strong kicking game should see him involved at fullback for the Hurricanes, while he also seems the most likely candidate to back up Beauden Barrett at pivot. Banks has been around the block and played in the Heartland Championship and Russia before finding his game last year with the Makos. Super Rugby is a big jump but Banks has cult hero written all over him if he can take the next step. There's just something about him that makes you think he will.

Star man: Beauden Barrett When you have an international-quality first-five in your squad you have to do everything possible to renew his contract. The Hurricanes were able to retain Barrett last season when the Blues were sniffing around for the 22-year-old's services. His development has been impressive in the past two years and while there are still question marks around his defence, it is improving. Barrett has a high rugby IQ, reads the game well and has an accurate boot. His partnership with halfback TJ Perenara will be crucial to the Hurricanes' fortunes this season.

Finished last year: (11th, 4th in NZ Conference)
Won: 6
Lost: 10
Coach: Mark Hammett
Captain: Conrad Smith
Home ground: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Capacity: 34,500
Players in: Marty Banks (Tasman), Mark Abbott (Hawkes Bay), Hadleigh Parkes (Southern Kings, South Africa), Cardiff Vaega (Southland), John Schwalger (Agen, France), Ash Dixon (Hurricanes Wider Training Group).
Players out: Jason Eaton (NTT Shining Arcs, Japan), Tusi Pisi (Suntory Sungoliath, Japan), Karl Lowe (Canon Eagles, Japan), Samisoni Fisilau (released), Ben May (Fukuoka Sanix Blues, Japan), Reynold Lee-Lo (Crusaders).

- NZ Herald

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