Ardie Savea's injury may be a major hurdle, but there's one player that will be far more difficult for the Hurricanes to replace
2020 is not shaping up as an easy season for Hurricanes supporters.
Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea, arguably the Hurricane’s two best players over the past few years, will both be absent for at least the start of the season.
Barrett has, of course, taken up a contract with the Blues (but also won’t be making an appearance for the Auckland-based side until late in the season) while Savea could be sidelined for up to six months thanks to knee surgery.
Factor in the departure of Matt Proctor, who coach John Plumtree has previously lauded as the best defensive midfielder in New Zealand, and it’s starting to look like the Hurricanes could find themselves struggling in the upcoming season.
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All that being said, it’s not like 2016’s Super Rugby champions haven’t got a number players on their books who can help cover the absences of the missing trio.
Of last year’s loose forwards, Vaea Fifita, Reed Prinsep, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Gareth Evans remain with the Hurricanes. The latter two are both experienced operators on the flank, but it’s Kirifi that will likely get first shot in the 7 jersey.
Kirifi, who debuted for the Hurricanes earlier this year, had a coming-of-age season in 2019 while captaining Wellington to the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership final.
The New Plymouth-born loose forward may not have the brute strength of Savea, but his enterprise over the park should at least keep the breakdowns ticking over.
Evans, who can cover all three loose forward positions, will likely find himself spending a bit time on the flanks in the upcoming season thanks to the recruitment of two number 8s, Murphy Taramai and Devan Flanders.
Flanders, who spent two years with the New Zealand under 20 side, is an especially exciting prospect, while Taramai has accrued 19 caps for the Blues.
Jumping to the midfield, Proctor is a player that the Hurricanes will likely miss more than many expect.
The 27-year-old, one-test All Black is already making a name for himself in Northhampton, having scored a brace of tries over the weekend against former-heavyweights Leicester.
In Proctor’s absence, the youthful pairing of Danny Toala and Peter Umaga-Jensen will be expected to step up. Both impressed during their schoolboy years and represented New Zealand on a national level, and the combination performed admirably when an understrength Hurricanes side dismantled the Blues at the tail-end of this year’s Super Rugby competition.
There’s also Billy Proctor, Matt’s younger brother, who signed a mammoth five-year deal with the Hurricanes to keep him in New Zealand’s capital until the end of 2023.
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Billy didn’t make quite as many waves during his schoolboy days as Toala and Umaga-Jensen, but evidently the Hurricanes see him someone who could fill a long-term role with the Hurricanes.
Other midfield options include Vince Aso, who was employed mainly at centre for Wellington this year, with Billy Proctor at fullback, and South African signing Kobus van Wyk – a surprising signing, given the seeming wealth of midfield resources that New Zealand currently has on offer.
A wildcard option could be Jordie Barrett – a man who has arguably played his best football in the 12 jersey.
Barrett can cover every position from 10 outwards and seems destined to take control of the fullback berth for 2020, but a move to the midfield could allow the playmaker to flourish.
When Barrett burst onto the scene for Canterbury in 2016 at the age of just 19, he was touted as the next big thing. Both the Crusaders and the Hurricanes came calling but Barrett eventually decided to link up with his older brother in Wellington.
At this point in time, you have to wonder whether that was the best move. He’s still learning his craft in the professional game, make no doubt about that, but the inside backs factory of Crusader-land could’ve helped him hone is natural ability in a way that no one at the Hurricanes probably can.
The Hurricanes are excellent at helping to bring out the X-factor in players – but that’s never really been an issue for Jordie. What he really needs is a calming influence, and that’s simply not the style of game that the Hurricanes are known to play.
Still, Barrett might have a challenge getting his hands on the 12 jersey with Ngani Laumape coming off a scorcher of a year for both the Hurricanes and Manawatu.
Laumape was a notable omission from the All Blacks World Cup squad and so went about his business destroying midfield defenders in New Zealand’s provincial game.
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Whether it’s Toala, Umaga-Jensen, Proctor or Aso who slots in at outside centre, the Hurricanes midfield will be a threat on both attack and defence.
That brings us to the franchise’s biggest concern for 2019: the 10 jersey.
With Beauden Barrett out of the picture, the Hurricanes desperately need one of their less experienced flyhalf options to step up.
Waikato’s Fletcher Smith has looked the stronger player in the Mitre 10 Cup over the last couple of years but Wellington’s Jackson Gardon-Bachop has perhaps looked more astute in his chances at the next level up.
There’s promise in both of them but, again, how well will the Hurricanes be able to nurture that talent?
Neither TJ Perenara at halfback nor Ngani Laumape at second-five appeals as the kind of commander that can help guide a young first-five in the early stages of their career.
There’s a reason why middle-of-the-road 10s have flourished at the Highlanders, and it’s partially because Aaron Smith is capable of serving up ball on a platter, courtesy of the side’s industrious forwards.
It’s a lot easier to gain confidence and prosper at the Super Rugby level when you’re not constantly having to deal with slow ball that leaves you with a rushing defence already in your face by the time a pass is in your hands.
Unfortunately, the above is a scenario that any Hurricanes first five may well find themselves in when the upcoming season kicks-off.
Despite the fact that Proctor has been a criminally underrated player over the last few years and Savea’s absence is coming with relatively short notice, it’s the loss of playmaker Barrett that will be felt the hardest by the Hurricanes.
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