When the Hurricanes roll out against the Blues at Eden Park on Sunday, expect plenty of fireworks from both sides.

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Not just because both sides are loaded with talent across the board, but because it’s set to be former Hurricanes playmaker Beauden Barrett’s debut game for the Blues.

Up until the surprise arrival of Dan Carter at the Auckland franchise, it’s been a storyline that has dominated headlines leading into Super Rugby Aotearoa, and the Hurricanes have a challenge on their hands if they’re to overcome the presence of Barrett on the ‘wrong’ side of the park.

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For all the ability they have throughout their squad, trying to replace the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year has presented a significant challenge in itself.

Through current first-fives Fletcher Smith, Jackson Garden-Bachop and James Marshall, they have three solid options with varying degrees of experience, but none wield the exceptional capabilities that Barrett can muster.

His absence was compounded even before the season kicked-off when head coach John Plumtree was picked up by Ian Foster to join his coaching staff at the All Blacks, forcing the sudden promotion of assistant coach Jason Holland.

Add to that star All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea’s lengthy injury lay-off and it’s easy to understand why the Hurricanes had such a rough time of things in the opening weekend of the competition.

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An error-ridden 27-0 thumping at the hands of the Stormers in Cape Town was a result few saw coming, marking a disastrous start to Holland’s tenure as new Hurricanes boss.

To their credit, though, a string of compelling performances against the Jaguares, Sharks and Sunwolves made for an impressive recovery effort in the ensuing rounds.

That was before a Tyrel Lomax red card led to a 24-15 home defeat to the Blues, but a last-gasp 27-24 win over the Chiefs the following week proved the Hurricanes still had plenty of fight in them.

Holland’s men haven’t played since that three-point victory in Hamilton nearly three months ago, but he’ll again be looking to one man who proved himself as the key figure in three of his side’s wins before the coronavirus-enforced suspension.

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Without his older brother pulling the strings in the backline, Jordie Barrett has been forced to take on a bigger leadership role within the franchise set-up, acting as one of only three All Blacks in the Hurricanes’ backline.

Beauden’s departure to Auckland has seen the younger Barrett assume goal kicking duties, a responsibility which he’s flourished with.

Having accrued 42 points from the tee this year, his value as an accurate long range goal kicker became apparent in the 26-23 win over the Jaguares, where he slotted a mammoth 63-metre penalty attempt at Buenos Aires.

Not only was it an eye-catching nudge from well beyond halfway, it was crucial in the context of the match as the visitors only escaped with a three-point win.

A composed display against the Sharks further illustrated his reliability off the boot and in general play, but it was against the Chiefs where he really shined when pitted up against fellow All Blacks fullback Damian McKenzie.

In what was virtually a head-to-head clash for the national No. 15 jersey, Barrett’s superior physical dominance was complemented by a mature display of good decision-making and settled playmaking.

The 84th minute penalty he landed from 40 metres out to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was the icing on the cake to show how he is thriving with the extra responsibility thrust upon him without Beauden’s presence.

It’ll be interesting, then, to see how Jordie, who could well be the frontrunner to land the All Blacks’ fullback position, fares against his older brother when the pair face off on Sunday – provided he’s able to shake off a shoulder niggle in time.

The anticipated return of Savea should make Jordie and his teammate’s lives much easier, though, with the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee expected to be fit for action after undergoing knee surgery late last year.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in New Zealand who is so powerful with ball in hand, able to stay on his feet when going into the tackle and possesses such a monumental leg drive.

It’s those qualities, combined with a supreme on-field work ethic and an unquenchable thirst for action, that made Savea the best player in the country last year, and his return will only bolster the Hurricanes’ title-winning chances.

Those chances will only remain intact should the club’s co-captains Dane Coles and TJ Perenara somehow develop an element of in-game composure.

As shown in their last outing against the Blues, the duo were guilty of floundering under pressure when the tide started turning against them, with one-upping the opposition and referee instead taking precedence.

While Lomax was sent off and the two further yellow cards undoubtedly aided the Blues’ ride to victory, the lack of level-headedness and leadership by the Hurricanes co-captains hurt their side’s chances beyond repair.

There’s no argument to be made about the playing quality of the pair, but both Coles and Perenara need to keep their mettle when they’re put under the pump, as they will be throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa, if they’re to even think about challenging for the Kiwi crown.

With Barrett and Savea on board, though, it would be unwise to rule Holland’s side – which features the promising Du’Plessis Kirifi, barnstorming Asafo Aumua and Ngani Laumape, who still has a point to prove after missing out on World Cup selection – out of the running entirely.

Beauden and the Blues will surely have something to say about that come Sunday.

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