Coach Jason Holland has sprung a surprise for the Hurricanes’ opening match of the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, in what will be new captain Ardie Savea’s 100th appearance for the Wellington-based franchise.
While Savea has traditionally played on the openside flank, the rise of Du’Plessis Kirifi in recent years has seen Savea shift to the back of the scrum.
Kirifi, however, has been left out of the starting XV for Saturday’s game against the Highlanders, with Savea returning to his favoured No 7 jersey – a jersey he didn’t get to pull on at all throughout the 2020 season for the Hurricanes, All Blacks of Wellington.
With Savea at openside flanker, Holland has plumped for the power duo of Vaea Fifita and Devan Flanders in the No 6 and No 8 jerseys, respectively.
Flanders, who was awarded the prestigious Golden Boot for his role in the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ 2017 campaign, is continuing his development into an important long-term fixture for the Hurricanes while former All Black Fifita has yet to recapture the form that saw him last feature for New Zealand in 2019.
Kirifi, meanwhile, will add some impact off the bench. Holland shed some light on the decision, suggesting that it was very much a ‘horses for course’ approach.
“We’re aware of the threat the Blues have and how we counter them and meet them head-on around physicality and what players are best at that sort of thing in the loose forwards,” he said.
“The obvious one that’s missed out is Dupes [Kirifi] and Dupes has been going outstanding for us so it’s not about how he’s playing it’s more how we think we can win the game with our group of four or five loosies – they can all contribute.
“It’s a little bit [about size], with Dev and Vaea being big guys, good for our lineout and those sort of things, but it’s also around our ability to put pressure on them for 80 minutes, not just 40 or 50.”
All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who has a minor calf injury, won’t make an appearance in Saturday’s game as the Hurricanes look to ease the 34-year-old into what could be his final season of professional rugby. Asafo Aumua will pack down in the front row between Fraser Armstrong and Tyrel Lomax.
The other big feature of the side is Julian Savea’s return on the left wing. Savea left New Zealand’s shores in 2018 but is hungry to earn a spot back in the national set up.
Saturday’s game against the Blues will mark the start of the Hurricanes’ first campaign without TJ Perenara since the abrasive halfback debuted in 2012.
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In Perenara’s absence, Counties Manukau’s Jonathan Taumateine has headed off Luke Campbell and Cam Roigard for the No 9 jersey with Campbell set to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench.
Last year’s big mover, midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen, has ceded the starting centre role to Billy Proctor and will being the season on the bench.
“Billy’s gone really well, he’s been awesome all through the pre-season and really put pressure on Petes,” said Holland. “Pete has missed a few days, he became a father late last week so he’s missed a bit but in fairness, he’s earned it. It’s going to be a good battle in that midfield for the rest of the season.”
With no first five option in the reserves, Jordie Barrett will likely step into the first receiver role should Jackson Garden-Bachop succumb to injury.
“It’s been a great old contest for some of the spots in the 23,” Holland said. “We’ve come up with a 23 that we think is the best 23 to go and beat the Blues and there were some tough calls but it’s exciting for everyone.”
In last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, the Hurricanes and Blues played out two superb games – the Blues won 30-20 at Eden Park, only for the Hurricanes to win 29-27 at Sky Stadium a few weeks later.
Kick-off on Saturday is at 7:05pm NZT from Wellington. The match will be available to stream for RugbyPass subscribers in designated territories who purchase a Super Rugby Aotearoa pass for the season ahead.
Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Billy Proctor, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Devan Flanders, Ardie Savea (c), Vaea Fifita, Scott Scrafton, James Blackwell, Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua, Fraser Armstrong. Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Xavier Numia, Alex Fidow, Reed Prinsep, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Campbell, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Salesi Rayasi.
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