Rugby: Hard yards pay off for lock

By Daniel Richardson

Hawkes Bay's Mark Abbott has impressed during Super Rugby pre-season. Photo / Getty Images
Hawkes Bay's Mark Abbott has impressed during Super Rugby pre-season. Photo / Getty Images

Every year there's at least one player in each Super rugby team who finds another level during pre-season and bursts into contention to make the starting lineup.

For some, the rise is well-telegraphed given their ITM Cup exploits or the plaudits they received as an age-group standout. But others push their case through sheer hard work and without fanfare.

Hurricanes lock Mark Abbott fits into the hard work category and he will make his Super Rugby debut against the Sharks in Durban tomorrow morning.

The 24-year-old was a regular for Hawkes Bay in his maiden ITM Cup campaign last season and earned a fulltime Hurricanes contract due to Jason Eaton's departure for Japan.

After a spell on the sidelines late last year to have some bone removed from a troublesome big toe, Abbott set about making Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett take note of his progress.

"It was always a question about whether he could do it at this level," Hammett said of his 1.97m second rower. "He's put on 7kg, he's still as fit as he was when he was 7kg lighter. He's a smart guy, he's very coachable, so he's made big improvements there."

There's a lack of certainty around a regular partner for All Black Jeremy Thrush in the Hurricanes' second row given Eaton has left town and James Broadhurst and Mark Reddish have never made the position their own.

That has paved the way for Abbott to claim a starting opportunity this week.

He grew up in Canterbury but given the glut of talent in Crusaders country he was forced to look elsewhere and when Hawkes Bay coach Craig Philpott, who is a transplanted Cantabrian himself, offered Abbott a chance with the Magpies last year, he didn't hesitate - he had to earn it though.

"I had to go up there and basically prove myself through the club season to make the squad," Abbott said. "I did that and then I played ITM Cup and I was lucky enough to get selected here so it's all worked out for me."

Abbott will play in a hot and heavy Durban where the humidity could make for a laboured and bruising encounter. If it is it will suit the home side given their forward pack is full of grunt, with the likes of Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis set to make the Hurricanes work for the win.

That anticipated physical battle was one of the main reasons Hammett did not select tearaway loose forward Ardie Savea in his team's match-day squad, preferring the versatility of wider training group member Adam Hill who will be on the bench.

Hammett also anticipated a kicking-orientated approach from the Sharks, who are one of the early-season title favourites, with the likes of first-five Patrick Lambie and superboot Francois Steyn in the No 12 jersey.

A potential game of forceback has helped Tasman utility Marty Banks earn selection at fullback for the Hurricanes with his strong punting ability likely to be a useful tool at Kings Park. Abbott is one of four Hurricanes who could make their debuts alongside Banks, Hill and reserve prop Chris Eves.

- APNZ

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