Super Rugby Pacific: Hurricanes v Fijian Drua. Where: Sky Stadium, Wellington. When: Sunday, May 8, 3.35pm. Live coverage: Sky Sport 1, live updates on Stuff.
Will the real Hurricanes please stand up. Now would be as good a time as any for the men from the capital to assume something resembling their normal Super Rugby identity.
It has been a far from vintage campaign for the seventh-placed 5-5 Hurricanes (24 points) in a rollercoaster inaugural season of the revamped Pacific competition, despite the promise of a signature victory in round 2 when they mowed down the Blues with a miracle in Dunedin.
Since then the form has wavered somewhat. There has been a three-game losing skid, and more recently a three-match winning streak, before last weekend’s deflating 42-25 defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra.
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But a strong finish could yet see the Canes climb the ladder ahead of the quarterfinals, and that starts with Sunday’s clash against the 1-9 Fijian Drua at Sky Stadium. It’s a match the men from the capital should win in a canter, but equally one they could drop if their heads are not in the right place.
Of course we all remember the Hurricanes slumping to that historic March 25 extra-time 24-19 defeat to Moana Pasifika at Mount Smart Stadium in a boilover that has no doubt been mentioned this week.
Coach Jason Holland made it clear he expects his players to know exactly what is, and isn’t, required following that disappointing effort against the Brumbies.
“We weren’t happy with some of our skill errors at the weekend which cost us around possession, and that flows into this challenge around making sure we don’t give the Drua any possession in a way we don’t want to give it to them,” he said.
“Any turnovers, any counter-attacks, they’re going to thrive on. A couple of things we got really wrong against the Brumbies we really need to put a focus on when we get ball.”
It’s an interesting Canes lineup that will run out. With Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett on All Blacks rest, they are without their two most dangerous strike weapons. Julian Savea, James Blackwell and Peter Umaga-Jensen are also among those sitting out.
But two veteran All Blacks make their first appearances of the season off the bench in the form of hooker Dane Coles and tighthead prop Owen Franks, who has made a double-time recovery from a ruptured achilles tendon last November.
There will also be Super Rugby debuts for Manawatū No 8 Tyler Laubscher, himself on the comeback from 18-month injury layoff, and19-year-old player Riley Higgins on the bench.
Holland expects both Coles and Franks to provide plenty of energy and experience off the bench, and says their efforts in the closing stages will be important.
“Everyone knows how desperate he is to play footy,” said the coach of the 80-test Coles. “He’s been dying to get on, and we’ve held him back, and made sure he’s 100. We expect him to be full of energy like a 17-year-old running round.”
And it was a similar expectation around the 108-test Franks who has already expressed his desire to win back his All Blacks spot.
“It’s been frustrating for him and been awesome for us,” said Holland of the prop’s long spell working back to fitness. “We’ve all learned a lot from Owie around his habits and his desire to be as good as he can be.
“It’s massive to have him on the park. Our scrum has been going pretty well now, we’ve got some good young props who have had good opportunities, and now Owie is there putting pressure on them.”
It’s still a strong enough Hurricanes lineup to deal with the counter-punching game of the Drua. Two specialist 7s in Blake Gibson and Du’Plessis Kirifi should provide the required mobility in the loose, and Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua and Xavier Numia will spearhead the scrum attack. Wes Goosen, Bailyn Sullivan and Salesi Rayasi will hope for plenty of ball in hand when the pill is shifted.
These last three weeks are vital for the Canes if they’re to avoid an ugly quarterfinal. With the Waratahs (away), Rebels (home) and Force (away) to follow, it is moving time.
Hurricanes: Josh Moorby, Wes Goosen, Bailyn Sullivan, Billy Proctor, Salesi Rayasi, Aidan Morgan, TJ Perenara (c); Tyler Laubscher, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Blake Gibson, Justin Sangster, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia. Reserves: Dane Coles, Tevita Mafileo, Owen Franks, Caleb Delany, TK Howden, Cameron Roigard, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Riley Higgins.
Fijian Drua: Kitione Taliga, Selestino Ravutaumada, Apsialome Vota, Jona Mataiciwa, Kitione Ratu, Caleb Muntz, Simione Kuruvoli; Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Kitione Salawa, Meli Derenalagi (c), Sorovakatini Tuifagalele, Isoa Nasilasila, Samuela Tawake, Zuriel Togiatama, Haereiti Hetet. Reserves: Tevita Ikanivere, Meli Tuni, Manasa Saulo, Chris Minimbi, Raikabula Momoedonu, Leone Nawai, Teti Tela, Onisi Ratave.
Referee: James Doleman.