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Hurricanes get reward for hard work

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Sportal.co.nz     17 Jul 2012     Getty Images

Many doubted the inexperienced team, without axed stars Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore, and Piri Weepu, Hosea Gear and Aaron Cruden who chose to leave, would scrape more than a handful of wins.

But the fact they were right in play-off contention until the last games of the regular season speaks volumes for the huge shift in culture and mindset instigated by Mark Hammett, who many felt should have been given the boot after the tumultuous 2011 campaign, and developed under captain Conrad Smith.

But Hammett has proved just how far off the mark his critics were.

This year instead of cliques and player power there has been hard work and honesty.

A new culture of belonging, improving and honouring the franchise has emerged and young players like TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Reg Goodes, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Andre Taylor have bloomed.

The Hurricanes came back from the opening three-week road trip to South Africa and Perth with a two-win, one-loss record and from there they didn't look back.

There were disappointments along the way. A late loss to the Highlanders, a defeat to the Cheetahs after building a 32-8 lead, a 42-14 thumping at the hands of the Crusaders and a below-par performance in the loss to the Brumbies.

But there were also some sublime moments, particularly the length of the field tries they conjured up. Julian Savea's first five-pointer last Friday against the Chiefs was breath-taking and involved forwards and backs, slick hands, great vision and the perfect finish in the corner.

It was one of 58, a season record for the franchise, the Hurricanes managed this year. But their never-say-attitude, and a bit of luck, got them over the line on occasions too – against the Blues in round five, the Highlanders in round 12, the Waratahs in round 15 and the Crusaders the following week.

The won 10 games in all, five more than the star-studded 2011 side, and finished eighth, just two points off the play-offs.

"It's been awesome," declared hooker Dane Coles. "From the start we wanted to win respect back off the public and play a style of rugby that everyone could be proud of. I think we've done that."

The fact around 26,000 turned up for last Friday's match against the Chiefs is testament to that.

"It was the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of at Westpac Stadium. That last four minutes of the game the crowd really lifted you. It was a pretty awesome feeling. Everyone is proud of the boys and the coaches. We're just stoked."

There has been disappointment at missing out on the finals series and the losses to the Highlanders and Cheetahs will hurt the most in that respect.

"You'll look back and look at games that could have and probably should have been won," said Hammett. "But I've said before potentially if we'd won those games would we have kicked on and the learned the lessons that needed to be learned."

"We'll talk about it – the what ifs – but overall it's been a really good campaign and I've really enjoyed it."

The challenge now will be to build on the foundation set in 2012, deal with the higher expectations that will come from this year's performances, and chase that elusive title.

"It will make it harder as a group because the guys have stamped a mark," said Hammett.

"We see week in, week out what's being done behind the scenes to grow and develop leadership, our environment and culture and just connecting with our people and who we are.

"There's been a lot of work done but it's a start. There is still lots we can work on."