AS THEY move out of the shadows and back into the limelight, the Hurricanes must cope with renewed external pressure in 2013.
Hope and anticipation were not themes associated with Mark Hammett’s second year in charge.
Historically, even with Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga shining, expectations haven’t been a welcome bedfellow for the perennial underachievers. Last year presented a clean slate.
Sure, there was spotlight, but, initially, on-field performance wasn’t the hot topic.
Hammett’s radical rebuild began with a firm grasp. Ma’a Nonu and then-captain Andrew Hore were jettisoned. At that point, many thought the former Crusader was bonkers. Few expected his side, which also lost Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden and Piri Weepu, to be competitive.
”Last year we were seen at a really low ebb,” chief executive James Te Puni said. ”Because of that a lot of people expected us to tank and finish at the bottom of the table.”
They did much more, missing the play-offs by just two points during a defiant, backs-to-the-wall campaign. It was a remarkable ride.
”Last year we didn’t know what to expect,” halfback TJ Perenara reflected. ”There were no expectations publicly. We got the motivation from people writing us off. We came together as a tight group to achieve that.”
Only now, the underdogs tag is gone. So, too, has All Blacks winger Cory Jane after a potentially season-ending ACL knee injury in training on Friday, a huge blow.
There are no other dramas to galvanise a similar them-against-us mentality this season, either. The build-up had been smooth, precise and without controversy.
One major question hangs over what is a largely familiar squad – can they back it up to buck the frustrating trend? It is a contrasting scenario facing the Canes’ quest to enhance those solid, surprisingly strong, foundations.
No longer is this a rookie outfit; the new kids on the block must progressively come of age, with Conrad Smith and Victor Vito continuing to pave the way in Jane’s absence.
While internal goals were lofty last year, the public offered a temporary grace period. Essentially, there was nothing to lose, much like the position the Blues are in.
After the unsettling turbulence, eighth was a successful season.
Naturally, more will be demanded now. Play-offs are a minimum. Having seemingly proven themselves, the 24 returning players and nine new faces want to contest the title.
”We’re here to win the competition, just like any other team, and we’re confident about that. We think it is realistic,” Perenara said. ”You have to beat the best to be the best.”
Only once last year did the Canes lose consecutive matches. Lessons were quickly absorbed. And for further steps to be taken, improved consistency will be crucial.
”We could muck around, but the truth is people have higher expectations of the Hurricanes,” Te Puni said. ”This year people expect us to challenge for the semi-finals. We know that.”
In this competition, pressure and hype go hand-in-hand. Second-year blues, where youngsters fail to kick on, is a notable danger.
Hammett and backs coach Alama Ieremaia oversaw the promotion of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles to the All Blacks, and Hammett is conscious of keeping them, and other prospects, grounded.
”Second-year syndrome often trips new All Blacks up,” said Hammett, who was granted a two-year contact extension.
All Blacks prop Ben Franks, Coles and Ben May form a solid engine room, with heat being applied from Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and hard-hitting hooker Motu Matu’u.
With Vito, Brad Shields, Faifili Levave, powerhouse prodigy Ardie Savea and the experienced Karl Lowe and Jack Lam vying for places, the loose forwards pack serious punch. Perenara and Barrett are dynamic halves and while Tim Bateman and Conrad Smith may lack penetration, they are creative, and gutsy defence can be just as potent.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.