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The difference between the Hurricanes and the Crusaders

By Ben Smith
Ardie Savea. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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It is clear the Hurricanes are frustrated after losing to the Crusaders 24-21, but the target of their frustrations, the referees, is typical of losing teams.

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Professional rugby is a high stakes game where emotions run high, and when things don’t go your way, it is easy to look at everything that went against you in search of answers.

No one doubts that it must be frustrating to lose on a dodgy call after running an all-or-nothing gamble to try a lineout maul to win the game.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 28
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 28

When you end up with nothing, the reaction is predictable. For captain Ardie Savea, who often puts everything into a game, it is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

To demand better of the officials is another thing entirely. Would it actually help the Hurricanes win more games if the referee was five to ten percent more accurate?

Because the question is, who is responsible for losing games of rugby at the end of day, the teams themselves or the referees? What do you believe?

If Savea demanded more of his teammates, coaches or the organisation instead, would that result in material improvements over time? The easy option is to point externally, the harder ask is to hold your peers accountable.

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How many of them are just ‘paid to play rugby’ and how many of them are truly ‘professional rugby players’? The latter has nothing to do with getting compensated and everything to do with how you act and carry out your time in the quest to be the best.

We don’t know these answers, of course. Only the players and coaches inside the building do, but the best team in the Super Rugby competition likely has a group of players who are doing all the right things and more.

When has a champion team ever been ill-disciplined, unfocused, done the minimum level required or blamed others for the results. Never.

The Hurricanes aren’t a hopeless case by any means. They are a very competitive team that finished one point astray from the Chiefs and three points behind the Crusaders. They are the only team to have defeated the Blues so far.

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They are there or thereabouts, but marginally off the pace.

The great Bill Walsh, former San Fransisco 49ers coach in the NFL,  believed the score took care of itself. If the right systems are in place, the game was already decided before the game.

For the Crusaders, it is clear they have had an advantage over their rivals over the last half decade with better systems up and down the organisation .

This starts from the development and recruitment of players right down to the weekly preparation for a game. The result is baked in already. They just go out and do the job. They aren’t surprised when they win, the score takes care of itself.

There can be times when the Crusaders do not get it right, but, by and large, they just win even when not playing their best game. They have a feedback loop that consistently shows them ‘if we do x, y, and z properly, this is what happens’.

This is with both short-term and long-term processes with the team and within the organisation. The Hurricanes have the same feedback loop at the moment, but with inverse outcomes.

Instead of looking inward to find out what is going wrong with x, y and z, their public leaders are starting to share their frustration outward, which is indicative of a team coming under pressure, desperate for results and looking to find blame.

It is clear that the Hurricanes as a wider organisation, do not have the best systems in place. All five New Zealand teams have good systems, but the question is, do they have the best? The answer would have to be no, based on first-hand evidence.

The long-term systems that they need to rely on – such as recruitment and development, the funnel of players that you develop into Super Rugby players – has not kept them as New Zealand’s best side after their 2016 championship. They have slipped to fourth based on this season’s results.

Many highly-rated prospects, often regarded as the top of their age-grade, have ended up with other teams. Others that have stayed haven’t really reached their potential.

Their second row has always been considered below-par when compared with, say, the Crusaders, who always seem to have All Black locks and front rows.

Taine Plumtree is now with the Blues and Naitoa Ah Kuoi is at the Chiefs, both of whom were schooled at Wellington College and locked down together in the second row of that school’s 1st XV five years ago.

Both were New Zealand Schools prospects. They both came through Hurricanes’ age-grade teams. Both are with other Super Rugby teams. If they were to become All Blacks in time, it would be prove to be a bad decision to let them leave.

For Plumtree, you couldn’t be more aligned with the club. His father was an assistant coach for years and was briefly the head coach. To lose a blue chip prospect tied so close to the franchise says something.

How about Folau Fakatava? Everyone knew Fakatava was the best schoolboy halfback in the country at Hastings Boys’, possibly the most exciting prospect in years.

Everyone knew TJ Perenara would eventually need to be replaced. Nevertheless, the Highlanders snapped Fakatava up to be the heir behind Aaron Smith. The Hurricanes’ halfback stocks have been short-term stop gaps since 2016 with no real long term planning for life post-Perenara.

Fakatava’s high school team had six New Zealand Schools representatives in 2017, and he would have been the seventh if he wasn’t injured.

This is a team, the Hastings Boys’ High School 1st XV, right in the Hurricanes’ backyard, in the Hawke’s Bay. Just one of those seven, loose forward Devan Flanders, is with the Hurricanes.

Four of them are with other Super Rugby Pacific teams: Lincoln McClutchie and Danny Toala are with Moana Pasifika, Kini Naholo is at the Crusaders, and, of course, Fakatava has signed with the Highlanders.

If these recruitment and development systems were theoretically 10 percent better, the Hurricanes might have had the extra points they needed against the Chiefs or Crusaders.

If the Hurricanes had scouted and kept Scott Barrett in the region, when Taranaki was still part of the franchise’s catchment area, he wouldn’t have sacked their lineout on Saturday afternoon.

The point is, the focus should be on continual improvement of all the systems that go into team building. Forget about the referees. The score will take care of itself if everything else is in place.

One team that has visibly changed its approach over the last few years is the Blues, who are having their best season after a breakthrough Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title last year.

The Blues region always has a surplus of talent having the biggest city and have never had a “need” to look around the country.

Retaining is always a challenge, but the Blues were never really that interested in looking beyond their borders. That has changed now, with the club scouring prospects nationally and taking them out of other regions.

If you want to be the best it is logical to seek out the best players available, regardless of where they are.

The signing of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the headline grabber, but the recruitment of players like Plumtree, Anton Segner, Sam Darry and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens are just as critical.

Those latter four names are all recent New Zealand age-grade representatives from other regions who have bolstered the Blues’ depth in positional groups that are already well-stocked.

The Blues already have Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane, three capped All Blacks in the back row. Adding Segner, a former Crusaders U20 captain, and Plumtree, a hybrid option at lock or 6 into mix has built incredible depth and competition.

From the signings at the top end of the market in Beauden Barrett and Tuivasa-Sheck, to the other end in highly-rated, unproven prospects, the Blues have got it right at all levels to build a championship-calibre roster.

You hear about how the arrival of Tuivasa-Sheck and the professionalism he brings that has inspired the Blues’ younger players.

The arrival of Barrett a couple of seasons ago also had a similar impact. Those are gains that are compounding and taking the Blues in the right direction.

They are finally using their market power, with business connections and third-party sponsors, to lure talent. It was an advantage they have always had, but under-utilised. It is perhaps an edge in their new system.

If you have the best systems in place, across the board in all different areas, the results will come. The Blues are finding that those results are coming, but time will time if they can achieve sustained success like the Crusaders.

For the Hurricanes, better processes and systems across the board in due time will see them get the results they currently think they deserve. Every player getting 10 percent better will outweigh the impact of the referee being 10 percent more accurate.

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