Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Second time lucky for Hurricanes?

Jeffery Toomaga-Allen shows his despair following the Hurricanes' defeat against the Highlanders. Photo / Getty
Jeffery Toomaga-Allen shows his despair following the Hurricanes' defeat against the Highlanders. Photo / Getty

When the Hurricanes failed to stay composed in last year's final and saw their dream of a maiden title smashed by the Highlanders, there was a definite sense they had blown the best chance they were ever likely to have to win Super Rugby.

They would say goodbye to both Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith after they lost in Wellington and that, so everyone thought, was going to rip the heart out of them. As the Hurricanes played the most electric football throughout 2015 to top the table and then cruise into the final, it was Nonu and Smith who caused most of the damage.

It was a last crusade for both and, for different reasons, they were equally determined to sign off with a Super Rugby title. Smith, as captain, and the longest-serving player in Hurricanes' history, knew his career in yellow and black needed appropriate closure.

Nonu's passion was just as intense, if not more so because he had spent three seasons as a nomad, yearning to be at the Hurricanes but not welcome under coach Mark Hammett.

Nonu was back in a flash when Chris Boyd was appointed in 2015 and played the best rugby of his career.

Without Nonu and Smith, the Hurricanes just weren't going to be the same team in 2016 and that collapse of theirs in the 2015 final was going to sting for a long time.

But here they are now, hosting another final in Wellington and with the odds stacked heavily in their favour. The Lions are good, but they are coming from Africa and there is a weight of statistics that says the away team hardly ever win a final and never do when they have travelled from Africa.

The Lions are good, but the weather forecast isn't and it's an acquired art playing in the worst Wellington can deliver - one the Hurricanes have perfected. Forget 2015 being their best chance, this Saturday is the ticket they can't, surely, fail to collect.

And they have reached this point because, when no one really thought they could, they have regenerated their midfield. Willis Halohalo, Vince Aso, Matt Proctor and Ngani Luamape have emerged almost from nowhere. They have managed to find their feet in stunningly short time and, as the season progressed, their influence has increased to the point where the Hurricanes midfield is not noticeably any less effective than it was last year with Nonu and Smith.

Halohalo, in particular, has been able to pick up a lot of the grunt work Nonu was always happy to do and drive the Hurricanes over the gainline in the last two months. The 320 running metres he's made in 590 minutes of football compares more than favourably with the 502m Nonu racked up last year in 1037 minutes.

His preferred midfield partner has become Proctor, who has put a steady hand on the tiller and a firm shoulder behind his tackling. Proctor has been rock-solid, the same sort of calming presence as the man he has replaced in the No 13 jersey, and even Hurricanes tragics will have been surprised at that.

How good this partnership could become isn't important. What matters is that they have been able to deliver what the Hurricanes needed this year and help them become, arguably, a better team.

- NZ Herald

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