By Lee Stace
AS I write this, I am taking a fork to what is the biggest slice of humble pie I have eaten so far in my journalism career.
Last year, I bagged Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett during Super Rugby. I criticised his decision to show All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Andrew Hore the door and predicted enormous pain and suffering for the franchise I used to barrack for during my civilian life in Wellington prior to becoming a member of the fourth estate when Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden and Piri Weepu also packed their bags and waved goodbye.
It was not that I had anything against Hammett as a person. I have found the former All Blacks hooker to be courteous and upfront during my dealings with him. It was that I didn’t agree with some of his coaching methods and how he handled the whole Nonu-Hore situation.
Fast-forward 12 months and I am happy to say that I was wrong about Hammett after a youthful and exciting Hurricanes side came within a whisker of making the Super Rugby playoffs.
There was much to admire about how the team conducted its business in 2012. They made gradual improvements every week. The players showed great heart, a new-found pride in the jersey, a determination to play for each other and an ability to remain composed at crucial times.
The Hurricanes’ 10-win, six-loss record and the 58 tries they scored this year were far superior to anything the star-studded side achieved last year and bodes very well for the future.
Hammett and his 2ic Alama Ieremia were able to unearth some young gems during the course of the campaign – Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Julian Savea, Brad Shields, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Reg Goodes – and watching them mature as players was undoubtedly one of the highlights.
The duo was also able to get the very best out of others who some believed weren’t up to Super Rugby. Andre Taylor finally showed what he is capable of at this level and was a dangerous counter-attacking revelation at fullback. Faifili Levave added a touch of work-rate to his destructive power game and was a consistent performer on the short side of the scrum. His loose forward partner Jack Lam displayed an unsatisfied appetite for work while going about his core roles.
Eighth place is really not a true reflection of how much this side has grown during the season.
But perhaps the biggest gains have been made behind the scenes.
My informants in Wellington tell me there is a new vibe within the team. They say it now has an official song for the first time it its history and that honours boards commemorating the achievements of past Hurricanes players have been erected in its room. A culture, it seems, has finally been established after many, many years.
Not everything went to plan this year, of course. The scrum was at times shakier than the Christchurch soil Hammett used to run around on as a wee nipper and the defence sometimes contained more holes in it than Swiss cheese. An inability to beat the Cheetahs and Brumbies when in comfortable winning positions also proved costly in the playoffs race.
Still, the foundation appears to be solidly in place and the Hurricanes have the ingredients to kick on in the coming years and annex a maiden Super Rugby title.
As for that slice of humble pie I have been digesting this morning, it doesn’t taste too bad.
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.