2013 Season Preview: HURRICANES
by Brendan Bradford –
The Hurricanes were New Zealand’s surprise packet in 2012. Largely written off after the departure of All Black legends Andrew Hore, Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu, an inexperienced Canes outfit endured a tumultuous off-season but were eager to prove the doubters wrong once the competition began. Led by hard-nosed coach Mark Hammett, the side set about their task with a youthful abandon and became the competition’s top try-scorers as they fell two points short of earning a play-off spot, eventually finishing the season in eighth place.
There is continuity in the squad this season and the relatively few newcomers add an intriguing mix of experience and greenness that already exists in the playing ranks. The big off-season acquisitions are All Blacks prop and former Crusader Ben Franks and promising young loose forward Ardie Savea. In addition, Ardie’s elder brother Julian joined playmaker Beauden Barrett and hooker Dane Coles in earning All Blacks debuts last year while stalwarts Conrad Smith and Victor Vito continued their great form from 2011.
Continuing the rise is their goal this year. While they flew under the radar last season, the 2013 Hurricanes will be one of the marked sides in the competition. That brings its own benefits and pitfalls and the valuable big-game experience the Wellingtonian youngsters picked-up in 2012 ought to put them in good stead as they move from precocious upstarts to serious title contenders.
Midfield back Tim Bateman moved to the capital from Japan last year after starting his Super Rugby career at the Crusaders. The 25-year-old New Zealand Maori representative quickly became an integral part of the Hurricanes backline and along with lock Jeremy Thrush, is hoping to build on the positive signs they showed last season. Thrush, 27, is in his sixth year with the side and as one of the senior forwards in the squad, is working towards making his first play-offs appearance since 2009.
Rugby News caught up with them both recently as they readied themselves for another Super Rugby season.
You were very close to making the play-offs last season and finished as the top try scoring side in the competition in the process. How have you been building on that form for this year?
Jeremy Thrush: “We kept improving as we went along and in the end we had wins over the Crusaders, the Highlanders and the Chiefs and we learnt pretty well from our mistakes, so at the moment we’re just trying to kick off from what we did last year. It’s just making sure we set our goals right and keep consistency – there were a couple of games where we slipped up and should’ve won so we just need to keep high standards.”
Tim Bateman: “Last year, people didn’t really expect anything from us and I think we definitely excelled most people’s expectations. This year’s about backing it up and showing that it wasn’t just a one off and that we are a quality side that are genuine title contenders. We’re going to be doing everything we can to win this competition and I truly believe that we’ve got the talent in the team and the coaching staff and the drive to do well.”
The Hurricanes were certainly one of the surprise packages last season, have you talked about the added expectation of being a marked team this year?
TB: “We have, yeah. When your back’s against the wall and you’re getting criticised, it’s easy to come out swinging. But when you haven’t got that sort of weight on your shoulders it’s about looking at yourself and looking at your team to be able to produce those sorts of performances without that added pressure.”
JT: “We knew no-one expected much from us but we kept ourselves to high standards and just wanted to improve. We ended up having a reasonable season and finished 8th, so it’s just about focusing on us and keeping those outside influences out.”
TB: “And I think it’s going to be a different sort of pressure too. Expectation brings its own challenges but we’re also more confident now. We had a very young side last year and those guys will be a lot further along in their development and confidence and I think all going well, we’ve got a side that can go a long way.”
There had been a couple of dark years in Wellington before last year’s resurgence, did those tough times bring you closer together and make you the team you are today?
JT: “I guess so. Just knowing we’d hit such a low point helped us build and keep a good team culture. No-matter what happens on the field, that’s something that’s really important to this team, keeping the culture together.”
TB: “There definitely were some tough times and it certainly has brought us together. I wasn’t here when some of that happened but with players being told they weren’t wanted to come back and a lot of new people coming in, there were really low expectations but as you say, that made us a really tight-knit side and we wanted to come out swinging, do well and prove to everyone that we were a good team.”
How has preseason gone this year?
JT: “Not too bad. The trainers got stuck into us and thrashed us a bit and we’ve had a few preseason games, which have been pretty high scoring, so we’re trucking along alright.”
TB: “Really good actually. We’ve had a couple of hit-outs now and while there’s a few things we need to work on, there’s a lot of positive signs too. Personally, it’s been one of the first proper preseasons I’ve had in a few years as I was in Japan for 18 months so I missed the last two. This preseason felt like a long time and a lot of pain but it’s coming together I think.”
It must be good to have a full preseason of a couple of months rather than coming into the start of the season a bit underdone?
TB: “Definitely. I really needed it too, because playing back-to-back seasons took its toll. Even though I was getting through games injury free, I was losing condition and going into a season having good conditioning puts your confidence levels high and you’re fitter, faster and better.”
Preseason trials have finished, how did they go and how are the new combinations and structures coming together?
TB: “There’s been a lot of good stuff, there hasn’t been a lot of change but the players who have come in have slotted in easily and brought a few new things as well. The new systems won’t be perfect first up, but there are signs that it will pick up as the season goes on.”
JT: “It’s been good, there was a lot of stuff that we were doing last year that we’re trying to add to, which has been good. We weren’t too worried about the results, it was more about making sure our patterns and structures are working and fine tuning things before we kick off against the Blues when the competition starts.”
The season ending injury to Cory Jane is a blow but do you feel you have the depth to cover for his loss and any others that may come about?
TB: “Obviously, you can’t replace a world-class winger like Cory overnight, he’s a loss to our side. But what that does is shift the responsibility to a few other players to step up into that role and give new guys an opportunity to perform well. We’ve got a few really good young guys coming through and a few guys who’ve been around a while too, so it’s a blow but not a season ending one for the Hurricanes.”
JT: “Yeah, that’s all part of the game really. He’s world-class and to lose him is disappointing but we can’t sit down and worry about that. He’ll look after himself and he’ll come in when he’s ready to help out and we’ve got the environment and the depth here for someone to put their hand up and play good footy.”
What are your personal goals for the season?
TB: “With the Hurricanes, our team goal is to win the competition. Personally, I really want to push harder to get to that next level. I’m 25 now so I think I’m at a good stage in my career to be able to challenge for it and if that opportunity arises I’ll grab it with both hands. At the moment it’s about doing the little things really well and just constantly trying to improve every week.”
JT: “I’m just looking forward to cementing a spot in the starting line-up. There’s good pressure for those starting positions and even just to get into the 22 so I’m just looking to build on my ITM Cup performances from last year.”
Who do you think will be your main competition in the New Zealand conference?
TB: “Each of the sides is really strong. Obviously the Chiefs are coming off a really good season, the Crusaders are really strong, the Highlanders have recruited a lot of players and will come out all guns blazing and then the Blues are in a similar position that we were last year with not much expectation. Each of them is going to have their own challenges and it’ll be tough to come out on top.”
JT: “I don’t think you can write anyone off to be honest. They’re all pretty strong and I think what makes it so tricky is that we play each other so much through ITM Cup and Super Rugby that everyone knows so much about each other that it comes down to the little things. That’s what makes it such a good competition.”
How about the across the competition generally – who do you like the look of in Australia and South Africa?
TB: “At a rough guess, the usual performers like the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks are really strong in the South African conference and the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs are always strong in Oz. Even the Force and Rebels can perform so week-in-week-out any team can win the game. It’s about really turning up and not taking anyone lightly at all.”
JT: “I’d guess the Stormers and the Bulls are pretty strong and most of those Aussie teams are pretty good too. I can’t really name one or two, it’s the type of competition that whoever can keep consistency and keep their players on the pitch and perform will win.”