Handshakes all round in the coaches box at the end of last night’s heavy defeat symbolized the changing of the guard to assistant coach John Plumtree. Boyd’s final hurrah won’t be a fairytale run, but he will leave as the franchise’s most successful coach with a revered list of achievements that the Hurricanes franchise will cherish for a long time.
Under Boyd’s watch, the team made back-to-back finals, winning a maiden title the second time around, reached the final four in the next two seasons and won 77% of their regular season games in a four-year span. For a long-suffering fan base, this was more than you could ask for.
The ‘sleeping giant’ of New Zealand rugby that had six playoff appearances in their first 19 years of existence was finally awake, and they were a force to be reckoned with.
The Hurricanes came of age around a young core of local talent – Jeff To’omaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Brad Shields, Victor Vito, T.J. Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Ardie Savea whilst veterans like Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Cory Jane finished their careers with the franchise in its best ever shape.
This generation was on the verge of a dynasty – the 2015 shock loss to the Highlanders took a legitimate title out of their hands after a franchise-best 14-2 season. The 2016 championship will be the crowning achievement of Boyd’s Hurricanes legacy, finally turning the team into winners and leaving an appetite for more success.
The backend of this period with two semifinal losses just kept multiple titles out of reach, with the rapid rise of the Crusaders quickly taking over the New Zealand conference with a scary ascension of their own.
The season that started with a loss to the Bulls quickly got back on track with a 10-game winning streak, fuelled by derby wins at home. It was only the trip to Christchurch in Round 15 that knocked the Hurricanes off their pedestal, with a two-game skid before the June tests giving up pole position in the conference.
A third loss in a row to the Brumbies sealed their fate as a ‘best qualifier’ playoff team, handing the conference to the Crusaders.
At 10-1 in mid-May, the side will be disappointed with a final 11-5 record. The away legs of each New Zealand derby proved to be the difference, with only a victory over the Blues. The Hurricanes are a different side at home, proving that with a 9-0 record including the quarterfinal win over the Chiefs.
The second age of Crusader dominance has arrived just as the Hurricanes looked like cashing in. The way the semi-final panned out doesn’t also bode well for the future, with a seemingly growing gap between the two sides.
The end of this season leaves the Hurricanes in a precarious position – they still have a number of experienced players but have roster churn that will be difficult to overcome.
The team was able to live without Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu after 2015 with youngsters Matt Proctor, Willis Halaholo, Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso stepping up, but as the unheralded pieces keep departing, the pressure to replace them without a hiccup rises. As does the odds of actually doing so.
Brad Shields, Julian Savea, Blade Thomson, Michael Fatialofa and Ihaia West will all leave after this season. While Ihaia West was a short-term stopgap from the Blues, all of the other four have been important starters during this run.
The Hurricanes pack has punched above its weight for most of the Boyd era, but this year’s pack was missing that extra dose of athleticism as injuries took a toll. The pack looked outmatched against the Crusaders in both away games, and a late-season loss to the lowly Brumbies was an ominous sign that things were slipping.
The front row stocks held experience with Toby Smith, Chris Eves, Ben May and Jeff To’omaga-Allen but could do with some more youth having lost Reggie Goodes to retirement and Loni Uhila the year before to France. The franchise will be hoping that 20-year-old Alex Fidow continues to make strides in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup for next year. Only Smith and Fidow are confirmed for next season so far.
The status of 31-year-old hooker Dane Coles also remains a question in the midst of a long-term injury layoff. Ricky Riccitelli has been invaluable in Coles’ absence and looks to be a long-term starter. Asafo Aumua didn’t have the debut season he would have wanted, cut short by injury after only a few bench appearances.
With Fatialofa heading to England, Vaea Fifita shapes as the foundation of the second row. The Hurricanes will be hoping New Zealand under-20 star Isaia Walker-Leawere can push Sam Lousi for the other starting spot.
Gareth Evans was a revelation for the Hurricanes this year and his addition could be the best signing of 2018. He covered all three loose forward roles and finished at openside despite playing most of the season at number eight. He will be an important figure with the side losing Shields, and seems likely to fill that role so promising youngster Reed Prinseep can play number eight. Ardie Savea has re-signed for one year and will hope to return to his best form following a run of injuries.
Halves TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett shape as important leaders for the franchise who will be plotting how to overcome the Crusaders juggernaut. The addition of Carlos Spencer as an assistant coach could be a masterstroke. Having his experience in the room could help evolve Barrett’s passing game. As a player who proved to be a handful for the Crusaders in his own playing days, he will no doubt have some ideas how to take down this side.
The backs have midfield depth with Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor and the versatile Jordie Barrett returning. Boyd has expressed how much Proctor makes a difference for this side, and they will be hoping he will shake the injury bug to play injury-free next year.
Wes Goosen and Ben Lam look to push for the starting wings after the departure of Savea, with Nehe-Milner Skudder available as fullback/wing cover as well. Young backs Peter Umaga-Jensen and Jonah Lowe should also be retained and both could feature more prominently in 2019. Lowe can cover centre/wing and Umaga-Jensen both midfield positions and fullback.
This team will still be one of the top three in the competition, and 2019 is another chance to capture a title. The best chance the Hurricanes have is winning back home ground advantage throughout the playoffs by finishing top of the New Zealand conference, which is how they made the final in both 2015 and 2016.
This means no hiccups against Australian teams and trying to win two or three of the away New Zealand derbies, as well as remaining undefeated at home. They have a better chance of doing that next year with away derbies earlier in the season, such as playing the Crusaders in February at the end of summer in Christchurch.
The Boyd era at the Hurricanes may have finished but the Crusader chase has just begun.
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