How will the Hurricanes bounce back from the worst off-season in history?
The Hurricanes finished their 2019 season with another semi-final defeat to the Crusaders, their second straight season-ender in Christchurch.
It would be Beauden Barrett’s last game for the franchise after an eight-year career in the nation’s capital. His shock announcement that he would join the Blues soon followed.
His departure will leave an irreplaceable chasm at the Hurricanes, who will not be able to replace his otherworldly instincts and attacking production. As he grew in stature at the franchise he also became a de-facto attack coach, running the show with newly-promoted coach Jason Holland.
Possessed with a golden knack for scoring a try out of nothing he also produced them – only Quade Cooper matched Barrett’s try assists totals during the 2010s decade. Every back at the Hurricanes will suffer from Barrett’s absence.
If that blow wasn’t enough, their best player from last year and the heartbeat of their forward pack, Ardie Savea, will be out for most of the season following knee surgery.
Savea’s form in 2019 reached new heights as he lifted the Hurricanes with world-class performances week in, week out. His impact was monumental on both sides of the ball and, much like Barrett, he is simply irreplaceable. Du’Plessis Kirifi almost matched Savea’s defensive impact last year, but no one has the kind of leg drive that sees Savea power through contact.
The final spanner of the off-season was the late departure of head coach John Plumtree to join Ian Foster’s All Blacks staff.
Whilst the public was let in late on the news, the Hurricanes would have had a little more time to prepare but still not enough to look outside the headquarters to the open market.
The perfect storm swirling has understandably lowered expectations for the Hurricanes heading into 2020.
This season will force the franchise to adapt like no other. If they are to find their way back to a Super Rugby semi-final, change is a necessity but it has already been forced, potentially allowing Holland some freedom to explore new ideas.
For all of Plumtree’s expertise upfront in the engine room, there were areas of the game plan that began to slip under his guidance.
Seemingly without any trust that halfback TJ Perenara can deliver an accurate box kick consistently, the side moved further away from Barrett’s defensive bombs that began under Chris Boyd and began driving kicks long down the middle as an exit plan.
This absolutely cost the side dearly in the semi-final against the Crusaders, with Barrett’s ill-advised kicking gifting the opposition a mountain of possession in the first half, which put his side in a deep hole after conceding multiple tries.
Contestable kicking has become a key metric that many elite sides understand is fundamental to winning games of rugby in the modern era. The Hurricanes didn’t seem to understand this in last year’s semi-final.
In contrast, the Crusaders have had one of the highest averages for contested kicks in Super Rugby over the last few years. They became three-peat champions and ended the Hurricanes’ chances of securing multiple titles at the same time.
The World Cup-winning Springboks side also did not let Handre Pollard drive the ball deep and uncontested down the middle in years past like Morne Steyn, instead handling nearly all kicking duties to Faf de Klerk. It worked as the formula suggested.
Recruitment at the Hurricanes has been spotty, to say the least, despite being gifted with one of the biggest playing pools in the country.
The graduation rate has been lower than desired, as they continue to lose top-rated prospects to other regions. They have held onto Devan Flanders, Danny Toala and Peter Umaga-Jensen in the backs and Xavier Numia, Alex Fidow and Asafo Aumua up front, but have seen some brilliant young players find greener pastures.
In two of the most crucial positions, the Hurricanes have failed to invest in their best emerging local talents at halfback and first-five, instead going for conservative stopgaps.
Halfback Folau Fakatava, out of Hastings Boys’ High School in Hawke’s Bay, was snapped up by the Highlanders last year at just 19-years-old to become the heir to Aaron Smith and a dynamic impact player off the bench.
With Jamie Booth, a player they cut last season and then re-signed as a late replacement from the Sunwolves, and ex-Chiefs halfback Jonathan Taumateine backing up TJ Perenara, there is no long-term plan in place at the position that local prospect Fakatava would have been a worthy investment for.
Again in the five-eighth stocks, instead of finding a roster spot for Hawke’s Bay and Hurricanes junior rep Lincoln McClutchie- who was also Fakatava’s schoolboy teammate – the franchise has re-signed 31-year-old James Marshall. McClutchie has since taken up a contract in Japan.
This year, the Wellington academy signed the New Zealand Schools pivot Aidan Morgan out of Auckland in a smart move that should be applauded, but he will not be ready for Super Rugby for a few seasons yet.
However, the signing that raised the most eyebrows was South African and ex-Sharks winger Kobus Van Wyk.
It is a head-scratcher when all the New Zealand Super Rugby teams are meant to produce All Blacks under this centrally contracted system. Why you would sign a South African winger when there is no shortage of outside backs in New Zealand, or even at the Hurricanes for that matter?
The signing of former franchise legend Cory Jane as an assistant coach, just three years removed from his playing career, smells like cronyism and is another question mark.
Ex-players don’t exactly have a great record of becoming great coaches. One that has, Scott Robertson, spent 12 years honing his style, starting at the bottom at grassroots club rugby starting way back in 2004 and under-age rugby before that.
He spent five years as an assistant for Canterbury from 2008 before being elevated to head coach in 2013, where he stayed for four years to earn a gig as Super Rugby head coach.
Robertson’s three consecutive Super Rugby titles were about 15 years in the making.
Compare that to his ex-Crusaders teammates Aaron Mauger (pro coach three years removed from playing career), Mark Hammett (three years removed), Todd Blackadder (four years removed) and Leon MacDonald (one year removed), who were all thrust into professional coaching earlier than Robertson and none have won any professional titles as head coaches.
There’s a lesson to be learnt there for any ex-player who wants to be a success as a professional coach – take the time to get there on merit, not playing credentials.
For all the operational flaws and bad luck this off-season, the Hurricanes do have areas of relative strength that makes them a dangerous proposition in the New Zealand conference.
You would have to assume TJ Perenara will continue to dictate most of the phase play and the Hurricanes will continue to play a truckload of rugby off No. 9, while Perenara will become even more of a playmaker at set-piece time without Barrett.
Midfielders Danny Toala and Peter Umaga-Jensen are gifted young players that can open up any opposition. Give them space and they will make you pay.
Those who doubt Jordie Barrett do not understand he is still in the development stage of his career and is one of the best prospects in world rugby. He will only turn 23 this year.
In his debut season in 2017 as a 20-year-old, he finished second in Super Rugby in try assists only behind brother Beauden. With the older Barrett gone and no playmaking No. 10, Jordie could assume a larger role in the Hurricanes’ attack out wide as a pivotal ball-playing fullback to complement Perenara.
This young Hurricanes side has the makings of a champion side at some point this decade but is missing a few pieces and a few more years of development to make that happen.
One thing that has been proven time and time again is that Super Rugby champions generally have a generational playmaking first-five, so getting one should be a top priority. The Hurricanes don’t have one anymore, so until they do they will remain a tough side to beat but it is hard to see more titles coming.
It’s why they should have rolled the dice on McClutchie and Fakatava to see if they could make good on their potential and build on their schoolboy 9-10 combination. It’s way too early to predict how Aidan Morgan would go but he can’t get there soon enough to find out from the Hurricanes’ point of view.
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