The return of Dane Coles to the Hurricanes for Round 5 of Super Rugby Aotearoa has perhaps overshadowed another selection decision that could have a greater impact on the team in the long run.
On Friday night, former Palmerston North Boys High student Ruben Love will wear the No 23 jersey for the Hurricanes in what will be his debut Super Rugby appearance.
While Coles is exactly the kind of player the Hurricanes need to get their season on track, with last year’s third-placers now having suffered three straight losses to kick the year off, there’s reason to believe that the All Blacks hooker could call time on his professional career at the end of the season.
21-year-old Love, on the other hand, is just getting started.
Having debuted for the Wellington Lions on the left wing in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, Love is more than capable of covering all three outside back positions as well as first five-eighth.
His first appearance for the Hurricanes should have fans of the side salivating – especially given the plaudits lavished on Love by another product of the Manawatu region, All Blacks midfielder Ngani Laumape.
“He’s one that I’ve been excited to see get an opportunity,” Laumape said following Wednesday’s team naming. “I saw him last year and obviously the work he’s done in the off-season, he’s a special kid. I really believe he’s going to be someone special.
“It’s really awesome to see another person come out of Palmy Boys. He’s really competitive, we were just competing hard-out in the gym just before so he makes me better and hopefully I can make him better.
“[As a professional player], you watch a lot of footy and when I watch him, he’s got something special about him. He’s got a lot of razzle, a lot of X-factor. Really excited to see him go.”
It’s difficult to say for sure where Love will slot in on Friday, with Hurricanes coach Jason Holland indicating that they currently see the young playmaker as an outside back, first and foremost.
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“He’s a talented young kid who can play anywhere in the backline,” Holland said. “We see him at the moment as an outside back who can cover 10 so who knows where that will end up but at the moment that’s where we see him.
“We signed him last year for the long-term so we know the talent he has. He’s been really diligent around his pre-season and what he’s done training-wise … He’s got a really clear understanding of how we want to play and what we do now and hopefully can bring his own little flavour off the bench and give us something a little bit different.”
Regular No 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop is set to have surgery on his Achilles, ruling him out for up to nine months, which means the Hurricanes have lost both of their No 10 options from their initial squad after Simon Hickey went down during the pre-season.
Orbyn Leger will start at first five on Friday while Jordie Barrett is an option in the pivotal position, as is Taranaki’s Dan Waite, who’s been called into the squad as injury cover. Love also has experience in the role and Holland indicated that wherever the young utility slots in against the Highlanders, he’ll likely have the chance to show off his playmaking wares.
Love himself has indicated that while he’s more comfortable wearing No 15 at this stage in his career, he’s also happy to play at flyhalf if needed.
“I think I played everywhere in the backline except halfback throughout high school, at some point in time,” Love previously told The XV. “That didn’t bother me. I wasn’t too worried about where I was playing at high school, it was what was better for the team.
“The roles and the principles of both 10 and 15 are much the same. Just, I guess, the positioning on some of the plays and having a bit more freedom to express yourself with ball in hand and stuff like that are the kind of attributes I see in a fullback’s game. Both positions have the same principles.
New Zealand certainly isn’t in the same position it was in 2015, when any one of half a dozen pivot options could have been trusted to wear a black jersey and guide the team home, but we could be on the cusp of a similarly golden era. @TomVinicombe ?? https://t.co/uLpGoZ3Puj
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) March 4, 2021
“I see myself more in a fullback, outside back kind of role. Going through club, I was playing first five but at the moment I’m not too hung up on where I’m at. I’m just trying to continue to develop my skills all the time and in the future, if I have to try and solidify one, then I’ll deal with that at the time. At the moment, I’m just trying to be an all-round player and be versatile, be able to go anywhere. But I like fullback personally, just because you have more time, more space.”
Of course, with 24-year-old Barrett also preferring the fullback role, Love’s opportunities may be limited in the future, unless he’s willing to take the reins in his second-choice position.
The top two Super Rugby Aotearoa teams will qualify for the grand final and, given their results to date, the Hurricanes will need to sharply and significantly improve their performances if they’re to have any hope of playing in the title match.
Realistically, however, their chances of earning any silverware are slim to none, unless the Blues have a sudden slump in form.
That presents Holland with the opportunity to build towards a brighter future – and that might mean employing Love, a potential long-term option in the No 10 jersey, at first five-eighth.
Friday night’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT and will be broadcast live and on-demand on RugbyPass for subscribers who hold a Super Rugby Aotearoa season pass.
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