Last Word On Rugby, by Scott MacLean.

2016 was banner year for the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise, putting the ‘crushing disappointment’ of losing the 2015 final on their home turf to the Highlanders behind them. They did that to finally take their maiden title, beating the Emirates Lions 20-3 in the decider at Westpac Stadium, Wellington. This year, target will firmly be on their backs in 2017.

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2017 Hurricanes Set For Action

“Expect the unexpected” has long been the catch cry of the Hurricanes, harking back to a time when the likes of Cullen, Umaga, and Lomu would attack from anywhere. It is at the core of the teams DNA that has been revived, after the sometimes dark and dour years of the Mark Hammett regime.

Current head coach Chris Boyd has taken the team to the final in each of his campaigns in charge, and has the talent at his disposal to do it again. He’ll again be joined by assistant John Plumtree and technical advisor Richard Watt, as the ‘brains trust’.

Strength in Stability

There’s no change in the on-field leadership team either, with Dane Coles and TJ Perenara (main picture) – a pair who are held in great respect by the playing group – continuing as captain and vice-captain respectively.

Stability is the key word within the playing group as well. Of the fifteen that started the final last year, eleven return with Victor Vito (La Rochelle), Willis Halaholo (Cardiff), Jason Woodward (Bristol), and James Marshall (London Irish) those who have moved on. The other notable not returning is long-time backup hooker and defensive ‘hitman’ Motu Matu’u, who is now with Gloucester.

Talent in Abundance Within 2017 Hurricanes

Not only is the squad stable, its got plenty of X-factor players who can turn a game in a moment. The ‘canes are in the unique position of employing two of the finalists for World Player of the Year and both Beauden Barrett and Coles fit the x-factor bill. The former’s stellar Super Rugby campaign was the catalyst for him seizing the All Blacks number ten jersey and then the games highest individual accolade, while the latter continues to redefine the hookers role and proved his toughest by playing the semi-final and final with badly bruised ribs.

Perenara, Ardie and Julian Savea, Cory Jane, and Nehe Milner-Skudder – all All Blacks – are all each capable of moments of brilliance. While the freakishly athletic Vaea Fifita is someone who can do things that no forward ought to be able to.

Vaea Fifita of the Hurricanes breaks away to score a try during the 2016 Super Rugby quarter-final match (Photo credit MARTIN HUNTER/AFP/Getty Images)

New Players Looking to Make an Impact

Nine players are new to the front-line squad. Of those, loose forward Toa Halafihi and halfback Kylem O’Donnell are completely new to this level, though the latter has past NZ Sevens experience. That also applies to former Blues player Ben Lam, while Ricky Riccitelli and former Chiefs forward Mike Kainga both earned playing time last year; including the final, and step up from the wider training group.

Alongside them will be former ‘schoolboy star’ Peter Umaga-Jensen. Sam Lousi has played for the Waratahs and before that the NRL’s Warriors. While Reed Prinsep makes the switch north from the Crusaders–albeit his only game time there consisted of about a minute, before being knocked out in a head clash.

Most of the focus however falls on the last member of this group. Jordie Barrett is also new to this stage, but comes with the benefit of a standout 2016 Mitre10 Cup for Canterbury and the experiences of an New Zealand Under 20 campaign (and he is eligible again this year). Capping it all off, an All Black Northern Tour as the squad apprentice  was the icing on the cake.

His signature was keenly sought by many franchises, but ultimately he chose to sign-up with one of his All Black older brothers in Beauden (see above) rather than join brother Scott at the Crusaders. When and in what position he makes his debut, will be watched with interest.

Hurricanes Title Defense

The Hurricanes title defense gets underway in Tokyo on February 25, with their first meeting with the Sunwolves, with their home opener the following week against the Melbourne Rebels. The balance of the schedule under the ‘much-maligned’ current system includes the reverse fixtures to last year against the Australian sides and matches against the Africa One conference; as well as the Sunwolves that means facing the Cheetahs, Stormers, and Bulls. On the home front there’s tasty looking home and away’s against the Crusaders and Chiefs – where there will still be some lingering animosity over ‘Scrumgate’  – and one-off derby games against the Blues and Highlanders.

The draw makers haven’t given any favours to the champs either. The last five rounds see the ‘canes play the Cheetahs at home, before traveling away to the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria and then encountering the Western Force in Perth on the return flight. After completing those long-haul flight matches, it is back to the Cake Tin for the the Chiefs. The competition then pauses, as the *International matches take place, before the ‘Canes face the Crusaders, to finish off Round 17 and head to the playoffs.

Chris Boyd To Keep Players On Target

Boyd knows that having reached the pinnacle of this competition, it will take new strategies to defend that title. He also is aware that a focus for his ‘All Black contingent’ will be on the British and Irish Lions tour, so keeping the players eyes on the job at hand will be a challenge. His coaching group will aim to be at the top-end of the table by the time of the International test window–and then to switch back on, when Super Rugby restarts on July 15 [Crusaders at home].

The head coach has been overseas at places as diverse as the British Army’s Sandhurst Academy, Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, soaking up all the knowledge that he could. Boyd felt this would bring an advantage, telling The Dominion Post that;

“You’re always striving to be better and there’s just some really little philosophical gems that drop out and you think if I twist that round slightly to my program or I look at it from a slightly different view, then actually that’s gold for me.”

Coach Chris Boyd of the Hurricanes speaks to Nehe Milner-Skudder during the Super Rugby pre-season match (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

By looking externally for good practices and different techniques on how to again claim the title, Boyd and his group will be innovative. They have a successful group, a stable core and will be well prepared. It will be certainly be a challenge but one the entire group will ready for.

Going back-to-back is a difficult task, but the 2017 Hurricanes certainly have the firepower to do it.

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