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Hurricanes young gun midfielder looking to emulate deeds of All Black great Conrad Smith

By Adam Julian
Riley Higgins of the Hurricanes looks on during the Super Rugby Pacific Pre-Season match between Highlanders and Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Riley Higgins should be fearless facing the Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time in his Hurricanes career. In seven appearances for the Hurricanes, the 21-year-old midfield back has won six times last losing to the Blues (19-25) on March 11, 2023.

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In 2022 Higgins was part of the Wellington Lions NPC team that broke a 22-year Premiership drought at Orangetheory Stadium. Wellington defeated Canterbury 26-18 in the final. In the 2023 NPC, he featured for an understrength Wellington who upset Canterbury 36-31 at the same venue.  Canterbury fielded six internationals.

Yes, Orangetheory Stadium is a Crusaders fortress. Since the makeshift venue opened in 2012 following the tragic 2011 earthquake the Crusaders have won 86 of 103 matches on the field, which includes a 36-game unbeaten streak from 2016 to 2020.

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However, the Hurricanes are soaring, and the Crusaders are seemingly on the canvas. For the first time since 2015, the Hurricanes have started a season with three consecutive wins.  That year the Hurricanes topped the round-robin and made the final. By contrast, the Crusaders have lost three successive games for the first time since 1996.

The Crusaders have so many injuries that some in Christchurch have joked senior club champions Marist Albion should replace them in Super Rugby Pacific.

Scott Barrett (finger), Will Jordan (shoulder), Braydon Ennor (knee), Ethan Blackadder (calf), Brodie McAlister (knee), Codie Taylor (sabbatical), Fergus Burke (Achilles), Tamaiti Williams (hamstring), Reveiz Reihana (shoulder), Leigh Halfpenny (shoulder), and Joe Moody (Covid) are all sidelined for the Crusaders.

That injury bill amounts to 600 Crusaders games and 160 tries. Halfpenny came from Wales after 101 Test matches and 801 points. He hasn’t managed a debut yet. Combined Barrett, Jordan, Ennor, Blackadder, Williams, and Moody have 212 All Blacks Test caps (154 wins).

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Captain Barrett featured in 104 of the 118 games (99 wins) coached by seven-time Super Rugby-winning coach Scott Roberston.

Still, Higgins and the Hurricanes are wary of the defending champions.

“They’re still a good side and they’ll be desperate,” Higgins told RugbyPass.

“We don’t really study individuals. We look at teams as a collective and ask where we can exploit them. There are a couple of areas where we think they could be vulnerable.”

Head-to-Head

Last 5 Meetings

Wins
3
Draws
0
Wins
2
Average Points scored
26
24
First try wins
80%
Home team wins
40%

Higgins was reluctant to disclose specifics but admitted consigning the Crusaders to an entirely winless month was a unique opportunity.

“I guess winning our first four games would prove a point to the competition and make it very hard for them. We’re not looking too far ahead. We’re taking things one game at a time.”

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For the first time since July 21, 2020, there won’t be a single Barrett on either side. Higgins is replacing Jordie Barrett after the 57-Test All Black was suspended for three weeks for receiving a red card in the 38-33 win against the Reds on March 3.

In last Saturday’s 29-21 win against the Blues, Higgins thrived by creating plenty of chances for his outsides and scoring a try.

“My try was all down to Kini Naholo. What a beast. He beat like seven people, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Higgins said.

“Starting at 12 is a good opportunity. The older boys do their best to make you feel comfortable. Brett Cameron is a good talker and Billy Procter and I have been close since I joined the Hurricanes. He’s got a great rugby brain; he’s generous with his time.

“Jordie is still training with the boys. He’s important even when he’s not playing.”

Higgins had to run 35 meters at full speed to complete the Naholo break. It happened with a dozen minutes remaining and the Hurricanes leading 24-14.

Since he made the New Zealand Secondary Schools out of St Patrick’s College Silverstream in 2020, a season he scored 17 tries in 12 games, Higgins has been earmarked for great things. He’s scored 24 tries in 24 matches for his club side, Petone, and was part of an unbeaten New Zealand Under 20’s team in 2022. In 19 appearances for Wellington, he has enjoyed 16 wins and scored eight tries. Winning the Premiership final against Canterbury in Christchurch is a career highlight.

“That was awesome. We built a great culture and game plan that season and were hissing for that game. I played the whole game too,” Higgins recalled.

“Tamaiti Ellison was our coach then, he’s with the Crusaders now. I’d never underestimate any team Tamaiti coaches. Being an All Black himself he understands what the players are going through. He has a great rugby brain and always gets input from everyone before making decisions and that creates a lot of buy-in.”

The Hurricanes have the best record of any visiting team at Orangetheory Stadium. A quarter of the Crusaders 16 defeats at the venue are to the capital-based franchise. In 2020 the Hurricanes ended the Crusaders unprecedented unbeaten run at the venue. Wes Goosen scored two tries and Jordie Barrett kicked 19 points in a 34-32 victory.

In 2014 Alapati Leiua beat six Crusaders defenders in scoring an individual, 60-meter, match-winning try.  When the humble Samoan international thanked God for his try a reporter jokingly intervened and said, “No Alapati, God would like to thank you.”

The Hurricanes were the first team to beat the Crusaders at Orangetheory Stadium. That happened in 2012. All Blacks legend Conard Smith scored two tries in a 23-22 success. Higgins was nine years old when that happened.

“Conard Smith. He was the man who did all the off-the-ball stuff I didn’t know about then. What a player. Billy Procter is similar now. They’re both underrated.”

The Crusaders host the Hurricanes to start Round 4 of Super Rugby Pacific at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch. Kick off is at 7:05 pm.

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1 Comment
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Utiku Old Boy 118 days ago

Higgins seems well-balanced, tough and a smart player that always seems to have time and definitely has the skills for the next level. While Jordie is a fixture in the ABs, it doesn’t seem like further honours are imminent but he is certainly one for the future.

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