Campbell Burnes: How the Hurricanes have found the magic loose forward formula

Ardie Savea of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty
Ardie Savea of the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty

Balance is vital in any top loose forward trio.

It's no good having three fetchers who cannot win a lineout, or three tall timbers who are second to every ruck. You need at least one, if not two, lineout options, at least one fetcher, and two ball carriers. Ideally, they are all dominant tacklers.

This writer recalls a Blues loose forward trio of Nick Williams, Angus Macdonald and Kurtis Haiu chosen to take the field in Sydney in 2006. Coach David Nucifora's plan was to have more lineout options against the strong Waratahs' set-piece.

Williams was a powerful ball-carrier off the back of the scrum, but Macdonald was a No 6 who could suit up at lock, while Haiu was a specialist lock.

The result was predictable: a 43-9 defeat and Phil Waugh was first to every breakdown.

The Blues may have won a few lineouts, but they were beaten to the punch in the collisions.

It is not, however, always the case.

In 1995 my University side faced a Ponsonby team with Isitolo Maka at No 8, Sam Kaleta at No 7 and Shem Tatupu at No 6. Not the smallest loose trio ever fielded... we lost 51-6 and this skinny scribe (back then, at least) looked on with trepidation every time of that lot exploded off the back of a scrum or ruck.

Last weekend we saw the Hurricanes' trio of Victor Vito, Ardie Savea and Brad Shields attempt to nullify Kieran Read, Matt Todd and Jimmy Tupou. The latter is a fine footballer and good aerial exponent, but Jordan Taufua he is not when carrying the ball.

If there was one man missed more than any in the Crusaders' outfit in the 35-10 defeat it was Taufua, who has brought energy and accuracy to almost every minute he has played in 2016. His direct play was the catalyst of so much of the good Crusaders' work this season.

The Hurricanes' threesome have shown consistency throughout 2016. Vito is the lineout winner, a solid ball carrier and effective at the breakdown. His speed is a bonus. He will be missed by the Canes in 2017.

Ardie Savea is arguably the player of the competition and for those myopics who feel he doesn't do enough on defence, he made 21 tackles against the Waratahs in a bruising clash just nine days' ago. Fetching, support play, tackling, cleaning out, winning lineouts, the younger Savea does it all.

Brad Shields is the unsung hero of the pack, but he gave a towering display on Saturday night. He is direct with the ball, and accurate without it. Shields doesn't stop.

Off the bench came Callum Gibbins, an under-rated footballer, who is strong on the ball and gave Read a don't argue for an impressive late try. The Canes can also turn to an international after him, USA Eagles flanker Tony Lamborn. Vaea Fifita is another dynamic runner who can suit up at lock, No 6 or No 8. So depth counts, almost as much as balance.

It all enables the Hurricanes to play the high octane game that can blow away opponents, as we have seen in their last three second halves.

Matt Todd is a superb, low error rate opensider, so he will be embarrassed by his high, missed tackle on Willis Halaholo. But he, Read and Taufua, are a compelling sight when they are on song.

The Hurricanes will face some quality loose forwards in the Sharks on Saturday night in the quarter-final at the Cake Tin - and John Plumtree and Chris Boyd know this better than most, having spent several seasons in Durban. Keegan Daniel will be there, possibly with Jean Deysel off the bench. But there was a time when the Sharks had to try and find room for Ryan Kankowski, Daniel, Deysel, Jacques Botha, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee, all versatile footballers with complementary loose forward skills.

The Hurricanes have put out some top loosies since 1996. Probably the most vaunted trio was the All Blacks' threesome of Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe and Jerry Collins. That was two powerful carriers, two fetchers, and two and a half high work-rates. So'oialo was so fit he just about broke his body with all the punishment. Collins was the enforcer without the ball. That was a balanced loose trio, though some will argue that Masoe wasn't the ideal fetcher.

This Saturday the Hurricanes three have yet another prime opportunity to show they are best balanced unit in the competition. Vito will be a loss for New Zealand Rugby, Savea is the big gain, and Shields might just be on the radar of the All Blacks.

Watch for some smash in the collisions and some dash in the open field.

Campbell Burnes is a former Manu Samoa No 10 who writes on rugby and college sport for the Herald.

- NZ Herald

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