Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

How the Hurricanes went from 'fat and slow' to the top team

Dane Coles of the Hurricanes during the Super Rugby match. Photo / Getty Images
Dane Coles of the Hurricanes during the Super Rugby match. Photo / Getty Images

If finals football is all about character and resilience, then the Hurricanes can feel confident they have as much as they need to be crowned champions.

They took the No1 ranking the hard way - the long way. The miracle wasn't that they jumped from fourth in the New Zealand Conference to first on the final weekend, it was that they pieced their season together at all from the most inauspicious beginning in Super Rugby history, when they went to Canberra five months ago to open their campaign and were hammered 52-10.

The only team to top the table who endured a similarly miserable opening night were the Reds in 1996, thumped 57-17 by the Highlanders.

The Hurricanes were awful in that first outing. So bad that former Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns felt the need to say: "They look fat and they look slow and they look unfit. They were dominant for the first five minutes and the rest of the time they've been chasing their tails."

It was a bit harsh, but ultimately the point he made was hard to refute. The Hurricanes didn't look like a team with much in the way of prospects. The hole left in their midfield by the departures of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith was gaping, and without James Broadhurst bringing his steely, workmanlike edge to the pack, they looked nothing like the team of 2015.

After losing their next game to the Highlanders, they ended up in a dogfight with the Blues at Eden Park and their season, with no hint of exaggeration, was hanging in the balance in those last five minutes.

The Blues, trailing 23-19, had laid siege to the Hurricanes' line and if they had scored, as they almost did, the Hurricanes would have been sitting on three straight defeats, their confidence shot. But they managed one of the more heroic defensive efforts to cling on and from there they found the resolve to slowly piece their game together.

Dane Coles returned from injury to provide his confrontational but inspirational leadership. Michael Fatialofa began to offer much the same portfolio as Broadhurst. Brad Shields, Ardie Savea and Victor Vito formed one of the best loose trio combinations in the tournament and in various combinations Willis Halohalo, Matt Proctor, Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape brought steadiness and directness to the midfield.

With TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett bringing the whole offering together, the Hurricanes went about finding their flow and because of their slow start, they were able to stay slightly in the shadows.

Now they sit in the spotlight, but it's not likely many cracks will be exposed. This is a side that has been built on the back of adversity - grown from not only their difficult start, but from the pain of losing in last year's final.

Barrett was distraught last year that he didn't play with the composure he wanted in the final.

He wasn't alone - when it came to handling the pressure, the Hurricanes were found out in 2015.

Their determination to ensure history doesn't repeat should not be underestimated. This is a side that went to Christchurch last Saturday with genuine conviction they would win and win well.

They had no fear, no sense that they were on hallowed turf. With home advantage now secured for as long as they keep winning, the Hurricanes have the opportunity to do this year what they couldn't do in 2015 - prove their depth of character and mental fortitude - and it's going to take a huge effort to beat them.

- NZ Herald

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