The Hurricanes’ second loss in Christchurch at the hands of the Crusaders signified the end of the Chris Boyd-era, the most successful in franchise history, but also well and truly put beyond doubt who the best side in New Zealand conference is.
Since featuring in the final in 2015 with a 14-2 record and then capturing a maiden title in 2016, the Hurricanes have quickly found a new adversary, one that has since overtaken them, playing second fiddle to the new Crusaders dynasty.
New head coach John Plumtree will look to change the balance of power by winning back the conference, after a 10-game winning streak last year the Hurricanes fell off down the stretch, conceding home-ground advantage by losing four of their last five.
If they are to capture a second title, home-field advantage in the playoffs is a must. In both seasons they reached the final under Boyd, they were the New Zealand conference winner.
The Crusaders have only lost three times in the last two years and two of those losses have been to the Hurricanes at the Caketin.
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If @hurricanesrugby wins the New Zealand conference and secures home ground advantage, @crusadersrugbyteam may not get the three-peat after all. The one place they have not conquered is the Caketin. ?? #superrugby #facts #hurricanesrugby #crusadersrugby #crusadeblocked #savesuperrugby #nzrugby #rugby #rugbyunion
How Plumtree uses his All Blacks, who have missed the whole pre-season, will be critical to planning the season. However, it is a question facing all the coaches of New Zealand franchises, a curveball that adds another challenge to overcome in the 2019 Super Rugby season.
Having been an assistant for the last four years under Boyd, Plumtree will be very familiar with the systems in place at the Hurricanes. Perhaps more important than this stability will be the need for the Hurricanes to continue to find ways to evolve to keep pace with the Crusaders.
The addition of assistant Carlos Spencer, one of the most creative attacking players of all time, may have just the ideas to do so.
The Hurricanes will be bolstered by the re-signing of captain Dane Coles and will be hoping the injury struggles of the last two years are behind him. The 32-year-old missed all of last year with an ACL injury, but returned for the All Blacks end-of-year tour to play international rugby.
The halves pair of All Blacks TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett combines two great rugby players who have positional flaws, it must be said. Perenara is a smart, dynamic running halfback who has an inaccurate pass at times, whilst Barrett is an explosive, instinctual playmaker with his own accuracy issues as a passer.
The two leaders have been the backbone of the Hurricanes success for the best part of a decade, but as their athletic abilities lose a step with age, so will their impact as playmakers.
Their games need to continue to mature to find the level of control the Crusaders pair of Richie Mo’unga and Bryn Hall already have. In tight fixtures against the superpowers of the competition, this is critical. No more was this apparent than the away trip to Christchurch in the wet, where the execution and decision-making wasn’t where it needed to be.
The emergence of Ben Lam as a record-setting try-scorer in 2018 meant that the Hurricanes were able to say goodbye to prolific All Black wing Julian Savea. ‘The Bus’ notched his 50th Super Rugby try, becoming the ninth player to do so in Super Rugby before seeking an early release to join Toulon.
Savea’s absence this year opens up the chance for Wellington-product Salesi Rayesi to make a case for the right wing, which will also be contested by Wes Goosen, Jonah Lowe, and Nehe Milner-Skudder, also in his last season before moving to Toulon.
Savea’s younger brother Ardie shapes as a key leader in the forward pack, now entering into his sixth year with Hurricanes with 73 Super caps. His end of year tour playing as a No. 8 and openside with the All Blacks showed just how valuable he can be, as the 25-year-old has reached a new level physically.
With long-time blindside flanker Brad Shields moving to Wasps, Savea is now one of the more experienced forwards and will need to lead the way in 2019.
Jordie Barrett moves into his third Super Rugby season and will be looking to re-find his supernatural combination with brother Beauden that took the competition by storm in his debut season in 2017.
The Barrett brothers control the backfield like no others, and their ability to read each other is irreplaceable. The Hurricanes 2017 attack might have been the best not to win a Super Rugby title, with the cross-field kicks coming in vogue as tries rained down from the air. After somewhat of a sophomore slump last year, the 21-year-old Barrett will be looking to continue his trajectory as one of the game’s premier young talents.
The Wellington front-row pair of Alex Fidow and Asafo Aumua have been promising prospects for a long time, and 2019 may just be the year they hit their straps in Super Rugby and earn regular game time. Gisborne-raised lock Isaia Walker-Leaware is another young forward with tremendous skill that is part of the next Hurricanes generation looking to break through this year.
There is no shortage of explosive athletes across the park with the likes of Ngani Laumape, Vince Aso, Vaea Fifita all proving big playmaking ability, making the Hurricanes a formidable opponent for anyone.
We know the Hurricanes will put together a competitive team of the highest calibre in Super Rugby, but with the Blues shaping as an improved force in the New Zealand conference, there will be little room for slip-ups if they hold championship aspirations.
To secure home-field advantage, losing games away to the likes of the Bulls and the Brumbies has to be avoided, and losing at home to any New Zealand side is a major setback with road wins so hard to earn in the conference.
The path to a second title does not go through Christchurch, so if the Hurricanes can force the Crusaders to come north in the playoffs, it’s on the table for the taking.
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