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RUGBYPASS+ High-speed half-life

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High-speed half-life

In the space of just two years, the Hurricanes have gone from having one of the most talented halves pairings in world rugby to having the least experienced in Super Rugby Rugby Aotearoa.

On Sunday, TJ Perenara made his Top League debut for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes where he will play out the rest of the domestic season. Beauden Barrett, meanwhile, made the shift to the Blues last year but will also spend 2021 in Japan.

While the loss of Barrett is yet to really be overcome, Jackson Garden-Bachop has strung enough competent games together over the past two seasons to suggest that with the right support around him, the Hurricanes can still thrive.

The likes of Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape stood up as playmakers and leaders in 2020 and took some of the burden off Garden-Bachop – who’s now entering his fifth season of full-time Super Rugby.

Captain Perenara, meanwhile, featured in all but the final game of the season and while the rebuild from the loss of Barrett may be well underway, there’s no obvious heir-apparent to the departed halfback.

Captain TJ Perenara will be the player the Hurricanes struggle the most to replace in 2021. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Complicating the matter is the untimely injury suffered by Jamie Booth during Manawatu’s Mitre 10 Cup campaign.

Booth looked like the obvious successor to Perenara during last year’s competition – a man more than capable of stepping into a Super Rugby starting spot and potentially challenging for higher honours. A broken leg, however, means the 26-year-old like won’t take the field at any stage during the Super Rugby season.

That leaves three men going head-to-head to wear the Hurricanes No 9 jersey this year.

Booth looked like the obvious successor to Perenara during last year’s competition – a man more than capable of stepping into a Super Rugby starting spot and potentially challenging for higher honours.

Jonathan Taumateine is the sole returnee from last year’s campaign, having shifted south from the Chiefs to back-up Perenara and Booth. Local man Luke Campbell, who has spent the past five years representing Bay of Plenty in the Mitre 10 Cup, has also returned to the capital. Booth’s injury, meanwhile, has resulted in Counties Manukau’s Cam Roigard joining the squad.’

At 24, 25 years of age, neither Taumateine nor Campbell are spring chickens – at least in terms of Super Rugby players making the step up to take on a starting role.

Despite their ample experience in the provincial game, neither one has had much luck cracking the next level.

Taumateine made his debut for the Chiefs in 2017 and played six matches throughout that campaign, backing up Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Finlay Christie. In his four seasons of Super Rugby to date, however, Taumateine has managed just one start – against the Sunwolves in his debut year.

24-year-old Jonathan Taumateine debuted for the Chiefs in 2017 but has struggled for game time behind the likes of Brad Weber and Tawera Kerr-Barlow. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Campbell is yet to play a game of Super Rugby but was new Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan’s preferred starter at Bay of Plenty last year ahead of All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Roigard backed up Taumateine at Counties in his first season of provincial rugby but is fresh to the professional scene.

Not to downplay the talents or potential of the Hurricanes’ halfback stocks for the coming campaign, but none of their three options are approaching the same level as Jamie Booth, let alone TJ Perenara.

I’m not clear who our first, second or third-ranked nines are at the moment, and that’s exciting.

Hurricanes coach Jason Holland

While Taumateine looks set to start the season as the preferred No 9 to partner Garden-Bachop following some solid form in the pre-season, Hurricanes coach Jason Holland has acknowledged that the jersey is still up for grabs.

“I’ve been really encouraged in pre-season,” Holland told Stuff. “Our three nines have come in and they’re all a little bit different but they’re all great young men and working hard.

“I’m not clear who our first, second or third-ranked nines are at the moment, and that’s exciting.”

Exciting, maybe, but also somewhat concerning for Hurricanes supporters. With each team playing just eight games in the regular Super Rugby Aotearoa season, there’s little opportunity for experimentation, especially when the competition is so evenly matched. If the Hurricanes don’t fire from week one, their finals hopes could quickly fade.

It means that whoever’s handed the No 9 and 21 jerseys for this weekend’s clash with the Blues will need to put their best feet forward – particularly when there’s next year to consider too.

Bay of Plenty’s Luke Campbell is a late bloomer in Super Rugby terms but could press Jonathan Taumateine for a starting spot. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Perenara will be back on the books in 2022 and, all going well, so too will Jamie Booth. That leaves room for just one more halfback in the squad.

Taumateine is now entering the second season of a two-year contract, Campbell has been brought in on a one-year deal and Roigard is injury cover for Booth, which means none of the Hurricane’s three scrumhalves for the upcoming campaign are guaranteed to be around next year.

There’s also the added twist that a number of No 9s with ties to the Hurricanes’ region but play their Super Rugby elsewhere around the country will be off-contract at the end of the season.

Te Toiroa Tahurioangi, who played three matches for the All Blacks in 2018, shifted from the Hurricanes to the Chiefs that same year in the search for more game time. That’s never really eventuated, with Brad Weber holding down the No 9 jersey for the majority of Tahuriorangi’s spell in Chiefs country.

Taumateine is now entering the second season of a two-year contract, Campbell has been brought in on a one-year deal and Roigard is injury cover for Booth, which means none of the Hurricane’s three scrumhalves for the upcoming campaign are guaranteed to be around next year.

On provincial form, newbie Xavier Roe may well push for a spot on the bench this year while young Cortez Ratima could also make a play for a Super Rugby contract in the near future. Might ‘Triple T’ have more luck heading back to the Hurricanes where he first made a name for himself?

There’s also Hawke’s Bay’s Folau Fakatava, who was somehow nabbed from underneath the Hurricanes’ noses by the Highlanders recruitment team.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown has suggested that Fakatava is set to earn more minutes this year following a two-year apprenticeship behind Aaron Smith, but Smith is likely to retain the All Blacks’ starting berth until the next World Cup, so how many opportunities will Fakatava actually have in the deep south?

Of course, Perenara is also signed on until the end of 2023, but he’s not quite on Smith’s level (few are) and Fakatava may see the Hurricanes as a better opportunity for minutes.

Thanks to the presence of Aaron Smith at the Highlanders, Fakatava has had to settle for minor roles off the bench in Super Rugby. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

If Tahuriorangi or Fakatava come calling, then it would take some mighty fine performances from any of the Hurricanes’ 2021 contingent to convince the coaches they’re a better option than the All Black or the All Black in waiting.

It makes for an incredibly interesting season for Hurricanes supporters. The three halfbacks aren’t just playing for one spot in the starting team, they’re playing for one spot in next year’s squad – at the very best.

Taumateine, as the most experienced of the trio, will almost certainly be handed the reins for Saturday’s battle with the Blues.

In last year’s competition, the two rivals shared the spoils with the Blues winning their first encounter in Auckland while the Hurricanes came back strongly in the latter half of the season and secured a narrow 29-27 win in the return encounter in Wellington.

The Blues will be without Beauden Barrett for this weekend’s clash in the capital but in Sam Nock and Otere Black, the Aucklanders still have a settled, proven halves combination.

The same can’t be said for the Hurricanes, and their opening match of the season should go some way to determining who is tasked with wearing the coveted No 9 jersey moving forward.

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