Monday 18 December 2017 / 02:59 AM

2017 SUPER RUGBY OUTLOOK: HURRICANES

It took two decades to do it, but in 2016 the Hurricanes finally delivered their passionate fan base a Super Rugby title, erasing the pain of the loss to the Highlanders in the previous year’s decider after dominating the regular season.

In a season that saw the emergence of Beauden Barrett as the best player in the world, the Hurricanes were almost unstoppable – despite the loss of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, the injury absence of Nehe Milner-Skudder, and a slow start to their campaign.

They cruised to an easy 20-3 win over the Lions in the final, the second in a row that the Wellington-based club had played in front of their home fans.

From Dane Coles’ brilliant captaincy, to TJ Perenara proving that he is indeed one of the finest halfbacks in world rugby, the Hurricanes captured the hearts of rugby-loving New Zealand public.

Heading into 2017, there is no reason why the Hurricanes cannot repeat their heroics. They have a No.10 that won the IRB World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016, and many regard Barrett as the best player in the world right now.

There is also the return of the brilliant Milner-Skudder, fresh from re-signing with the club through until 2019. Some noteworthy names have left the club, though, including the highly-experienced No.8 Victor Vito after many years in Wellington.

But there is also a big injection of youth into the backline, with Barrett’s younger brother, Jordie, and ex-Blues star Ben Lam linking with the franchise, easing the loss of James Marshall, Jason Woodward and Willis Halaholo to UK clubs. Big Waratahs lock Sam Lousi will join former Warriors NRL teammate Ngani Laumape in the Hurricanes squad.

The Hurricanes would join the Blues and the Crusaders in a very exclusive club as the only Super Rugby teams to make three final appearances in a row if they can repeat their form in 2017.

BEST RECRUIT: Jordie Barrett was the name on everyone’s lips late last year when he was selected in an apprentice role for the All Blacks’ Northern Tour. Just 19 years of age, Barrett has had a lot of coaches and players in his ear during the offseason, and he’s also had a lot of attention from the media. Younger brother to ABs stars Scott and Beauden, Jordie has been earmarked as a long-term option in the All Blacks.

Barrett already has a NPC title to his name with Canterbury, and in his first taste of professional rugby, he scored five tries, kicked 22 conversions, and was successful 18 times from penalties. In total, Barrett notched 123 points in his debut NPC season for Canterbury. Slated to play at either fullback or in the midfield, Barrett was one of the biggest signings for the Hurricanes ahead of the 2017 season and has the inside running to link in the ’Canes backline with Beauden.

STRENGTH: The Hurricanes forward pack has all the ingredients to take the club to the finals once again in 2017. In the front row, Dane Coles leads the side once again and brings all his 94 games’ worth of experience to the squad. Coles is widely regarded as the best – and certainly the most dynamic – hooker in the world, and in the 2016 season, the 30-year old dotted down for five tries. Big prop Loni Uhila will be looking to carry forward his learnings from what was an impressive debut season last year. In the loose forwards, Ardie Savea and Brad Shields are two of the best going around in New Zealand rugby.

WEAKNESS: The Hurricanes come into 2017 missing some of their core performers in the backline. Despite the return of Nehe Milner-Skudder, three noteworthy men have departed New Zealand to take up contracts overseas. Big man, and 2016 standout, Willis Halaholo turned down a return to the Hurricanes and took up a lucrative contract with Welsh club Cardiff Blues. Utility back James Marshall signed with London Irish, and the talented Jason Woodward has left for Bristol. Thankfully, however, the Hurricanes’ most capped player, Corey Jane, returns in 2017.

KEY MAN: There hasn’t been a harder working man during the offseason than halfback TJ Perenara. Once the All Blacks Northern Tour was complete, Perenara returned to New Zealand and has been hard at it in the gym ever since. Widely touted as the back-up All Black halfback to Aaron Smith, Perenara took his game and leadership skills to the next level in 2016.

Perenara was a key ingredient to the Hurricanes title win in 2016; his quick passing allowed Beauden Barrett to baffle opposition defences, and his ability to spot open gaps in the backfield helped pin oppositions deep in their own half and garnered a bagful of tries. Perenara would go on to have a stellar year in the All Blacks jersey, being given a handful of starts at the highest level after Smith’s off-field dalliances – but his brilliantly consistent Super Rugby season ensured it was an opportunity well earned.

PLAYER TO WATCH: There are a number of ways that you could describe the brilliance that Beauden Barrett can produce on a rugby field. The 2016 IRB World Player of the Year absolutely lit up the Super Rugby and international scenes, and it all started with his 223-point season with the Hurricanes. Barrett played big parts in the knockout matches during his side’s title-winning run, including a spectacular run downfield in the semi-final against the Chiefs which set up one of the best tries of the year. Barrett has 82 caps worth of experience for the Hurricanes and has notched 938 points for the club.

YOUNG GUN: Otere Black is one of the most promising youngsters floating around. Despite having played just 11 games of NPC rugby with Manawatu, Black was called up to the Maori All Blacks to tour Fiji in 2015. That same year, Black also donned the black jersey for the New Zealand U-20 side, amassing 63 points. With three Super Rugby clubs chasing his signature, Black decided to re-sign with the Hurricanes with the hopes of getting more regular game time in the following season. Black is a goalkicking option and can slot into No.10, the midfield, or at fullback.

NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Julian Savea was one of the few who struggled with the Hurricanes during their watershed 2016 campaign. In total, the winger scored just six tries during the season and was benched on occasion. Savea beat just 42 defenders in 16 games, and on the defensive front only accounted for 27 tackles. Another alarming statistic: Savea had a total of zero try assists on the season. For one of the Hurricanes’ – and New Zealand Rugby’s – highest-profile players, many were scratching their heads at the numbers.

THE COACH: Not only is Chris Boyd the only man to coach the Hurricanes to a title, he has been around rugby in the Southern Hemisphere throughout his entire career. Aside from his Super Rugby duties, Boyd is also the coach of New Zealand’s U-20 National team and has been in that role since 2012. Boyd started his coaching career in Wellington; his first Super Rugby gig was assistant coach for the Sharks from 2006-08. Boyd was also defensive coach of Tonga during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

THE DRAW: The Hurricanes will travel to Japan and open their Super Rugby account with a clash against the Sunwolves. It will mark a historic occasion as the Hurricanes become the first New Zealand Super Rugby club to play in Japan. Following that, Chris Boyd’s men travel to Melbourne for a clash against the Rebels. In terms of New Zealand conference opponent, the defending champions will have to wait until week three where they will take on the Chiefs in Hamilton.

POSSIBLE 2017 LINEUP:
1. Loni Uhila
2. Dane Coles
3. Reggie Goodes
4. Michael Fatialofa
5. James Broadhurst
6. Brad Shields
7. Ardie Savea
8. Blade Thomson
9. TJ Perenara
10. Beauden Barrett
11. Julian Savea
12. Vince Aso
13. Matt Proctor
14. Cory Jane
15. Nehe Milner-Skudder

Reserves: Ben May, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Ricky Riccitelli, Sam Lousi, Vaea Fifita, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Otere Black, Jordie Barrett.

[YouTube – Rugby Montages HD]

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Michael Pulman

Based in Hamilton (NZ), Michael is Commentary Box Sports' rugby union and cricket expert

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