Above: Fun in the sun, the Savea brothers full of running in last year's 71-6 slaying of the Rebels. Hurricanes supporters will be hoping for more of the same this year.
The past three years have been the most fruitful in Hurricanes history. A runner-up finish in 2015 was followed by a maiden championship in 2016. Last season the Hurricanes scored more tries (102) than any other side en-route to the semi-finals.
The Hurricanes prospects of another serious title tilt in 2018 appear to be strong. All Black stars such as Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Dane Coles, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder are the backbone of the franchise, though Milner-Skudder won’t be available until April or May as he recovers from a dislocated right shoulder. Coles is rehabilitating a knee injury and it hoped he will back mid-year. Brad Shields has been named captain in the absence of Dane Coles
Discarded All Black veteran Julian Savea may feel he has a point to prove. The 27 year-old has scored 44 tries in 101 matches for the Hurricanes and was damaging at times for the Wellington Lions in the Men’s NPC competition. Can Savea find the motivation and form to return to the lofty heights of 2015 where he was undoubtedly the best winger in the world?
Ngani Laumape scored a Super Rugby record 15 tries in 2017, enjoying a very strong New Zealand debut in the third test against the British & Irish Lions. Surprisingly he was used sparingly afterwards. Laumape will be a tightly marked target in his second season but will be hungry to grow his test tally.
Vince Aso scored 14 tries last year and has the ability to cover both midfield and wing. If Aso can replicate that form he will present headaches for opposing defences and knock on the door of national selection.
Jordie Barrett scored a team-leading 144 points last season, rapidly ascending to the All Blacks only to be crippled by a shoulder injury. Wes Goosen has crossed the chalk in his last five games and is a quality utility.
The Hurricanes front row has a sturdy appearance with regulars Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Ben May, Jeff To'omaga-Allen and Michael Fatialofa all returning, though the latter is recovering from injury.
Young dynamos Asafo Aumua and Alex Fidow are seriously exciting prospects. Together the front rowers scored 15 tries between them for Wellington in the NPC. Fidow is a prop with a huge engine, a startling turn of speed and a growing stature in the scrum. Aumua, fast-tracked to the All Blacks, is the most explosive talent in Kiwi rugby since Jonah Lomu.
The Asafo Aumua weight story is a curious one. Witnesses attest to the young hooker trying so hard at training he would vomit due to exhaustion so turning up for the pre-season out of shape is way out of character. Is there an ego issue or is the rib injury also hinted at by Jason Holland more serious than first thought.
The retirement of Reg Goodes is a sad, but necessary decision for the 26-year-old prop. Goodes hasn't recovered from the effects of concussion. His experience and sturdy scrummaging will be sorely missed.
What about the rest of the roster?
Ihaia West and Jackson Garden-Bachop will engage in a fascinating tussle for the reserve first-five position. Both bring similar attributes on attack. Garden-Bachop is a much better defender, West a more accurate goal-kicker. West brings greater experience having appeared 45 times for the Blues. Breathtaking at his best, West can be frustratingly erratic. Garden-Bachop was earmarked for great things when he left school five years ago. He is finally living up to that potential, enjoying his best season for the Lions in 2017.
Beauden Barrett is sitting on 998 career points for the Hurricanes, so is just a conversion away from becoming just the fourth player in Super Rugby to raise 1,000 career points.
Hawke’s Bay wing Jonah Lowe was a standout in the pre-season, scoring three tries in the win against the Crusaders and snatching an intercept against the Blues which turned the momentum of that fixture in favour of the Hurricanes. Lowe touring South Africa was an unlikely prospect at the start of the year, but the Hawke’s Bay wing looks hungry and adds another selection choice to the Hurricanes long list of quality picks in that position.
Jamie Booth was a standout at the Brisbane 10s. The Manawatu halfback scored two spectacular tries in the semi-final to help eliminate the Crusaders. Booth has struggled with injuries, but his vibrant hustle at present will provide a valuable back up for captain TJ Perenara.
The inconsistent Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been cut with Jamie Booth and Finlay Christie preferred as substitute halfbacks. Booth is a lively battler from the Manawatu who made the New Zealand Secondary Schools in 2012, only to break his leg a short while later. After spending the best part of 18 months recovering, Booth has re-established himself as a solid pro. Christie is a young, smart and dependable scrum-half who was a big part of Tasman’s surge to the NPC Premiership final.
The Hurricanes have selected seven loose forwards and five locks. Specialist openside Du'Plessis Kirifi, only 20 years old and at one point the busiest tackler in the NPC, is genuinely unlucky to miss out. Murray Douglas and Sam Henwood are preferred for their superior experience, height and versatility.
Gareth Evans is a terrific addition. Leaving the Highlanders after 58 matches, Evans was arguably their best in the meteoric 23-22 win over the British & Irish Lions in June, The flanker is an ideal swap for the European bound Callum Gibbons.
The Hurricanes most notable departures are former All Blacks Cory Jane and James Broadhurst, workhorse lock Mark Abbott and the popular ‘Tongan Bear,’ Loni Uhila.
The Hurricanes open their season with two away matches, against the Bulls in Pretoria this weekend and the Jaguares in Argentina next weekend. If they can win both of those matches and come away unscathed from injury then they should be flying when they host the Crusaders at Westpac Stadium on 10 March.
Club Rugby’s Hurricanes coverage in association with Les Mills