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Are the Hurricanes pushing the panic button with their early-season selections?

By Tom Vinicombe
Julian Savea and Bailyn Sullivan. (Photos by Photosport and Getty Images)

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After kicking off their campaign with a 42-32 loss to the Crusaders in Dunedin, the Hurricanes will return to the scene of the crime when they clash with the Blues this weekend, hoping to right some of the wrongs from their opening round defeat.

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Coach Jason Holland has named an unaltered tight five for Saturday’s encounter but there are ample changes throughout the rest of the squad and it’s hard to gauge whether the Hurricanes will be better for the ‘rotation’.

Injuries to Du’Plessis Kirifi and Billy Proctor have prompted some of the movements in the side, with former Blues flanker Blake Gibson taking over in the No 7 jersey and Bailyn Sullivan getting promoted to start at outside centre. A number of other players, however, appear to have faced the axe after not providing enough starch in the defeat to the Crusaders.

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Los Pumas star Pablo Matera features on the Aoteroa Rugby Pod.
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Los Pumas star Pablo Matera features on the Aoteroa Rugby Pod.

Devan Flanders, Ruben Love and Peter Umaga-Jensen – three players the Hurricanes could potentially build their future team around – have all been dropped from the starting lineup to the bench. In their places come Reed Prinsep, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Julian Savea (who has shifted into second five after starting last weekend’s match on the right wing) – three serviceable players who aren’t out of their depth at this level of the game, but likely wouldn’t make the starting line-up of any other New Zealand team. Those decisions, according to Holland, are almost exclusively tactical.

“I don’t have a mindset that we’ve rotated this week,” he said after naming his side for the weekend. “We’ve got a couple of things forced on us through injury at 7 and 13 but in saying that, we’ve got guys who have trained really well and there was nothing in the decisions around the Crusader week but they deserve their opportunity.

“[Some players] went OK [against the Crusaders] without going really well to say ‘You have to pick me’ in those spots other than 7 or 13. It’s a great competition to have in our squad and I’ve got every confidence in the boys that are putting on the 1 to 15 and the 16 to 23.”

The selections of Savea and Sullivan are particularly curious, given neither player has ever started a match in the midfield at Super Rugby level.

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Savea made a name for himself in the outside backs, particularly on the left wing, but was shifted into the midfield after leaving New Zealand to join Toulon in France. Upon returning to NZ, he made it clear that he pictured his long-term future in that new position.

“I’m liking the midfield,” Savea said on James Marshall’s What a Lad podcast. “I would love to play in the midfield [for Mitre 10 Cup]. I’m getting a few pointers from one of the best 12s in the world.”

Just three times since Savea returned ahead of the 2020 provincial season, however, has the 31-year-old started matches in the midfield, with all three of the matches coming for Wellington in the NPC.

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Sullivan, meanwhile, made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs in 2018 but has also only ever been deployed on the wing at this level of the game, and it was only really in Waikato’s successful campaign last year that he regularly had opportunities in the midfield at provincial level.

There shouldn’t be any questions over either player’s competencies on attack. Both players can be destructive runners who possess useful fends and they’ll likely pose some tough questions for their opposites on Saturday evening, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane – two men who aren’t necessarily long-term proven performers in the midfield themselves. On defence, however, the fleet-footed Blues duo could prove very tough to keep under wraps.

Holland has suggested that his coaching crew have always one eye on Savea playing in the centres:

“I suppose when we go back to early January, that was always in our head, that we think he’s a pretty good 12 these days,” Holland said. “Got a great skillset, understands things really well both sides of the ball so it was always definitely an option and we think it’s probably a good time to do that now.”

Despite those comments, however, It’s worth noting that even during the pre-season, neither Savea nor Sullivan were handed starting opportunities in the midfield for the Hurricanes and rushing out the combo against the Blues does seem like somewhat of a kneejerk reaction to Peter Umaga-Jensen’s less than impressive performance against the Crusaders, coupled with the injury to Billy Proctor. Proctor has always been a favourite of Holland’s while Umaga-Jensen – who looks better suited to play No 13 than No 12 – has rarely been give consistent minutes for the Hurricanes, which was especially baffling last year after he had earned an All Blacks call-up during their Tri-Nations campaign in 2020.

Garden-Bachop’s promotion to first five, meanwhile, is probably just rewards after the 27-year-old helped sparked the Hurricanes’ attack to life in the final quarter against the Crusaders, with is penetrative running causing problems for the opposition defenders. While Garden-Bachop had a bit of a slow start to Super Rugby, he performed well for the Hurricanes in the first iteration of the Aotearoa competition in 2020 and was likely eyeing up a breakthrough campaign last year before injury struck him down early.

Make no mistake, Ruben Love could still be a long-term superstar in the capital – but he needs proven, experienced performers around him in order to reach his potential, and the Hurricanes don’t currently have access to players like that at either halfback or second five-eighth. TJ Perenara’s return later in the season once he overcomes his injury issues may help, as would Jordie Barrett shifting into the midfield from fullback, which is far from guaranteed (and at that stage, perhaps Love would be better served by spending some time at No 15).

Prinsep’s promotion over Flanders is also an odd call. While Prinsep has been a relative mainstay in the Hurricanes line-up since Holland took over, starting in 11 of the team’s 14 matches last season, Brayden Iose was in compelling form off the pine last weekend and has surely done enough by now to earn his first run-on appearance. Flanders also topped the tackle charts in Dunedin. Instead, however, Holland has gone for the ‘safe’ option.

Man for man, the Hurricanes come out on the wrong side of the ledger in their match-up with the Blues and some of the selection decisions this week have likely only increased the gap between the two sides. Having an extra game under their belt may help their case but it’s difficult to envisage anything but a win for the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.

After this weekend, it’s likely to again be back to the drawing board for the Hurricanes, and there aren’t exactly any obvious solutions to their personnel issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. The Hurricanes aren’t too far off any of the other New Zealand sides, but given the resources at their disposal in the region, they should really be doing better than simply competing hard.

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