The Historian 06.May.2012Getty Images
In the second season of the then named Super 12, few could look past the maiden champions, with the Sir Graham Henry coached Blues stacked with the core of the current All Blacks team.
While the 1996 Super 12 champions drew their first match with Northern Transvaal, they then proceeded to cut a swathe through the competition.
Frank Oliver, the Hurricanes inaugural coach, oversaw a difficult first season, where his team won only three matches in the tournament’s opening year.
However 1997 was a different story.
You wouldn’t have thought so at first, with the Hurricanes losing back-to-back matches against the Chiefs and Crusaders.
The first of three matches against South African opposition showed glimpses of their unharnessed potential.
The week leading into their round three match against Northern Transvaal was high drama, as it was reported that captain Mark Allen and players actually demanded the coaches leave the room during one training session – with the team having a no-holds barred honesty session after starting the season 0-2.
As the Hurricanes prepared to face the South Africans – who would end the season with the best result against the eventual champion Blues – New Plymouth and the near 13,000 strong crowd had little idea of what was about to happen.
The Hurricanes scored eight tries, with wing Tana Umaga scoring a triple, en route to recording a 64-32 win, then the third highest score ever registered in Super Rugby.
They would then travel to the Republic and defeat the Gauteng Lions in Johannesburg, and while they lost their second touring match in Durban, they did outscore the 1996 runners-up three-tries-to-two, losing 29-24 in a close game.
Competing with the heavyweights was a theme that was building their season, as on the return home, they stopped over in Brisbane to play the 1996 top-of-the-table regular season qualifiers in the Reds – and duly defeated the Wallabies laden outfit 47-29.
The Hurricanes catch phrase of “expect the unexpected” would have been more appropriate if it had been “we will blow you off the park”, as the Wellington based franchise then ran riot beating Free State 59-30 and the Highlanders 60-34.
Twenty-three tries in three matches had put the competition on high alert.
The Hurricanes defeated the Waratahs 19-3 to make it four straight wins, a record for consecutive victories for the team at the time.
It was then on May 10th, 1997, that the Hurricanes received their ultimate barometer, playing none other than the reigning champion Blues at Eden Park.
Umaga was again the hero for the Hurricanes, scoring two tries as the visitors came within a whisker of handing the title holders their first and only defeat of the season, ultimately going down 45-42 – the second highest point’s conceded by the Blues at the time.
It was a brave effort considering that many of the Blues legends, the likes of Michael Jones, Joeli Vidiri, Zinzan Brooke and Carlos Spencer, all crossed the Hurricanes line that day.
The Hurricanes then lost their final regular season match to the Brumbies 35-29, a loss that ‘rewarded’ the side with a trip to Canberra for the semi-finals, where a Christian Cullen double couldn’t prevent a 33-20 defeat.
The Blues would win their second title 23-7 over the Brumbies, but the Hurricanes had served notice that they were not a team to be trifled with, although it would not be until 2003 that they would again reach the knockout stages.