Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Unsung heroes gain respect with graft

Potential weakness in lock and midfield have become a strength as the Canes launched their run to final.
Michael Fatialofa suits the hit-and-run style of the Hurricanes.   Picture / Photosport
Michael Fatialofa suits the hit-and-run style of the Hurricanes. Picture / Photosport

Lock and midfield, two areas of potential vulnerability for the Hurricanes, have now become strengths thanks to the performances of several players who have seen their value at the franchise rise sharply.

Michael Fatialofa and Vaea Fifita have been the two unsung heroes in the second row, making up for the absences of Jeremy Thrush (overseas) and James Broadhurst (concussion), with Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor and Willis Halaholo all spending time in the midfield following the departures of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith to overseas clubs.

The key thing for Fatialofa, 23, and Fifita, 24, is their mobility. They aren't the biggest locks - in fact Fifita plays loose forward for Wellington - but they suit the Hurricanes' hit-and-run game plan as Chris Boyd effectively has five loose forwards on the field. Both have impressed with their ball carrying and defence this season. Fatialofa has beaten 14 defenders and Fifita 23 - wing Cory Jane has played more minutes than them but has beaten only 14 defenders himself.

The scrum hasn't suffered either, with the Hurricanes' 95 per cent success rate in the set piece equal best with the Highlanders.

Halaholo, 26, and Proctor, 23, get the job in the midfield today, with Aso on the reserves bench, but the way all four midfielders have swapped in and out with no discernable change in performance has been a feature of the team's run to the final - even wing Jason Woodward performed well there as a late change before the big win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. It's also a credit to the coaching and systems that Chris Boyd and John Plumtree have put in place.

The loss of experienced All Blacks Nonu and Smith was seen as extremely damaging to the team's chances of going one better this season. Instead, they have hardly been missed at all. Former Warriors player Laumape has improved throughout the season. His defence has been a feature of his game, but all of his midfield colleagues deserve credit for the way they have shut down attacks thanks mainly to their almost maniacal line speed.

Most of the credit for the Hurricanes' first try against the Chiefs last weekend went to Beauden Barrett for his stunning vision and skills in chipping the defence and getting within metres of the tryline, but Halaholo deserves respect for the way he finished off the move. He showed incredible skill and calmness to receive the pass from the prone Barrett and step inside the cover defence.

Halaholo has signed to play for Cardiff next season but his absence is unlikely to be felt as Boyd and Plumtree go about their business.

It remains to be seen whether they start next season as defending champions, but with TJ Perenara and Barrett pulling the strings, and their unsung heroes providing the graft, they are unlikely to get a better chance.

- NZ Herald

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