The Great Big NZ Super Rugby preview: The Hurricanes

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James Mortimer     18 Feb 2014     Getty Images

Indeed, the last time the Hurricanes had this many All Blacks in their squad, the likes of Jonah, Tana and Christian used to romp with the franchise, but even those legends weren’t able to force the carving of the ‘Hurricanes’ onto the Super Rugby trophy.

The side has 14 players who have suited up for international play, with three capped Pacific Islanders including Samoan 2013 Player of the Year Jack Lam. Of that contingent, eight players represented the All Blacks at the close of the year, while two – in captain Conrad Smith and Ardie Savea – will be crucial operators in the upcoming season.

However if this elusive crown is to be claimed, it will be Mark Hammett and his supporting cast such as the likes of Alama Ieremia that will be the figureheads, and they won’t deny there is some pressure.

It cannot be sugar coated that the Hurricanes 11th place finish last year equalled their worst ever, while if they cannot register their seventh ever Super Rugby Finals Series, it will represent five years without reaching the knockout stage, matching another unwanted franchise mark.

Hammett knows the challenge in front of him, with the former hooker clearly looking to implement some forward starch and tactical pragmatism to go with sparkling attack that has always been part of the Hurricanes ethos.

However therein lies one of the many questions that will need answering, the 58 tries scored in 2012, far and away the best in the competition and a franchise record, was trimmed last year as teams worked hard to shut down the men from Wellington.

Championship maxim suggest that it isn’t the sides that can be effectively countered that win trophies, but those who are able to impose their own style on all comers.

There will also be focus to ensure the season’s rage can be maintained, four wins in a row after their first six got conversation amped early last year, but just one victory in their last eight quickly ended any hopes of a maintained threat.

But if it is going to be up to one man, on the field the spotlight will fall on one of history’s greatest ever number 13s.

If that wasn’t enough, the most capped ever All Blacks centre in Conrad Smith, with 75 Test caps, will lead the side in what will be his centurion year, fresh and ready after six months extended leave.

Married last year, Smith’s break was primarily engineered to freshen up a member of the World Champions leadership group for a potential tilt at 2015, but one wouldn’t be surprised if leading the Hurricanes to a maiden Super Rugby championship could be the biggest achievement the Taranaki born back has mused about during his time away.

Initially however it will be up to the Hurricanes forwards, rightly or wrongly labelled as one of the weaker packs in the New Zealand group.

Dane Coles is now entrenched within the All Blacks forward setup, Ben Franks remains one of the strongmen of the local front row ranks, while it isn’t a stretch to suggest that the Hurricanes boast one of the more dynamic back rows in Super Rugby.

Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Jeremy Thrush will like to put their fresh learnings from being immersed in the All Blacks environment last year into place, while the likes of James Broadhurst and Motu Matu’u would mind taking another step up.

The back row fascinates, with Victor Vito needing a strong campaign to shudder up a selection queue held firm by Kieran Read, while Ardie Savea will have another year to prepare for what, based on last year’s apprenticeship, seems to be a potential All Blacks selection only he can lose.

Then there is the rear guard, the back division that has the ability to literally unleash hell. The first cards have already been laid, with Cory Jane stating his claim, not so much personally as much as throwing down the gauntlet, and to think he will partner with the Bus himself, Julian Savea.

TJ Perenara will want a big campaign as for two years Aaron Smith has been the senior scrumhalf, while Beauden Barrett knows a Carter-less Super Rugby represents a huge chance to the Hurricanes conductor to push his claim against Aaron Cruden.

The non-international arm of the Hurricanes backs has new signing Marty Banks, the experience of Chris Smylie, while the exciting Kelston Boys High School product in Cardiff Vaega – he will fill the midfield stocks alongside Tim Bateman, Hadleigh Parkes and of course the team’s captain.

Last season the team scored 40 tries, behind the Chiefs (50) but alongside most contenders, but how their defensive systems operate will intrigue, with the Hurricanes line crossed 49 times last year, ranked twelfth overall. If their vaunted attack clicks, a tackling wall that approaches that electricity will only increase the hopes of a supporting base that doesn’t need much to get into gear.