Regain respect. Restore some pride.
These are realistic targets for the Hurricanes, who embark on a self-inflicted rebuild of epic proportions.
Talk of last year’s turmoil has been muzzled. Don’t mention the ugly public spat.
A bunker mentality has been instilled. This is reflected from the top, with chief executive James Te Puni refusing three weeks of Star-Times face-to-face interview requests.
One hopes the franchise learns to better handle scrutiny. Starting the season with two games in South Africa, then one in Perth, is almost make-or-break territory.
But then, being let down is customary with this mob. Their culture can only improve.
The Hurricanes are a team you were born to follow rather than choose to support. They bring joy but, ultimately, disappointment.
Potential and pedigree they always had. Cullen, Lomu, Umaga, Collins, Weepu and Nonu are some of New Zealand’s best modern-age rugby players. But they never delivered on that promise.
Oh, wait. There was that one misty final in 16 attempts. A title is no closer now, than then.
Nothing, however, quite compared to the rabble of 2011. Setting the worst losing streak in franchise history was a new low. And it only got worse.
Internal feuds sent, not just senior All Blacks, but loyal servants of Wellington rugby packing, leaving nine sizable holes. Already-frustrated fans, stretching across nine proud provinces, were further alienated. Those grudges won’t disappear overnight.
Thankfully, Conrad Smith is one for accountability. Despite losing friends, he never considered jumping ship and approaches this campaign with a slice of realism and determination. Importantly, he believes in the men around him.
Taking the new role of captain, the classy All Blacks centre faces one of the biggest challenges of his stellar career.
Much of the burden weighs on his shoulders, though his deputies Victor Vito, Cory Jane, Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush offer support.
That leadership core will encounter battles off the field, as much as on it, with Mark Hammett looking to distance himself from last year’s confrontations and gain acceptance from the divided, disillusioned region.
“That’s fair to say. It’s something we’ve talked about already,” Smith said of the bunker mentality.
“You’re conscious of the expectations, or lack of them from outsiders. It makes it easier in some ways. There’s a steel in the group to get on with it and prove a few people wrong. That provides plenty of motivation.”
Some of this year’s squad, especially the front-row newbies, were barely at college when hearty supporters braved the bitterly cold southerly to reach the summit of Athletic Park’s towering Millard Sand.
But with baby steps and unity the Canes might be able to progress from ninth. The playoffs are probably beyond them, but this side should be judged not on results alone, rather, the competitive nature of their encounters. Local success stories, in the form of Beauden Barrett and Brad Shields, should also be enjoyed.
“There are a lot of things that I want to see this team achieve, even if that’s off the field in terms of building a culture and environment,” Smith said.
“We produce a lot of talent in the region. I’d love to keep it and see players loving this team. Finishing the season like that would be a victory.”
His contract ends at the end of this season, but you suspect second-year head coach Hammett has been given a long-term vote of confidence to carry out his desired vision. He received unquestioned backing from Te Puni, the board and NZRU last year and oversaw such a radical cleanout that a major backflip would surprise.
The Canes have never lived up to the hype. This year there is none. Expectations are minimal. But they must front. Repaying the faith and improving on last year should not be too much to ask.
– © Fairfax NZ News