Last year, Mark Hammett took over the coaching duties for a team which, under the previous coach Colin Cooper, had made the playoffs five times in eight years. It did not turn out very well.
The Hurricanes, while boasting a team that included World Cup winners Andrew Hore, Victor Vito, Aaron Cruden, Conrad Smith, Hosea Gear and Cory Jane, and IRB Player of the Year candidates Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu, finished fourth in the New Zealand conference. They edged the Chiefs by two points, partly because of a draw awarded to them due to the Christchurch earthquakes.
This season, the job gets even harder, because out of those players, Vito, Smith and Jane are the only ones remaining, leaving the Hurricanes in the unfamiliar position of having the least internationals in the New Zealand conference.
The fact that those players played well in the World Cup for the All Blacks raises questions about Hammett's coaching ability. He has to get the most out of his young players to show that he is the right man for the job.
The departure of props Neemia Tialata and John Schwalger leave the Hurricanes with versatile Taranaki man Michael Bent and longtime Chiefs prop Ben May as the probable starters. May has always been a solid starter but was better known for being a mobile prop than a destructive scrummager. Behind them are rookies Reggie Goode, Tristan Moran and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen.
At hooker, Andrew Hore has been replaced by two solid players in Dane Coles and David Hall. Coles has always been a mobile hooker with a nose for the try line, having scored 15 tries in 56 appearances for Wellington.
Hard-running Southlander David Hall spent a good deal of the last few years splitting time at the Highlanders with Jason Rutledge. However, he sat out last season with a shoulder injury and may not be as effective as in the past.
Both Jeremy Thrush and Jason Eaton return to the second row and will be joined by Taranaki's James Broadhurst and Mark Reddish. A mobile lock who is aggressive in the line-outs, Thrush, a former IRB Under-19 Player of the Year, has been a fringe All Black for a while but has never made it past the Junior All Blacks. Jason Eaton, on the other hand, will be looking to regain the form that made him an All Black in the past.
Victor Vito will lead the way in the loose forwards, being their only All Black. The former Sevens player will be joined by veteran Hawkes Bay fetcher Karl Lowe and hard tacklers Jack Lam and Faifili Levave. Lam in particular has made big strides since making his Super Rugby debut and could become a factor this season.
At halfback, taking over for Weepu will be either the journeyman Chris Smylie or teenager T.J. Perenara. Smylie has always been a nippy ball runner around the fringes and is playing for his third Super Rugby franchise. Perenara could be the future at the halfback position, after making his debut for Wellington while he was still in high school. At 19, he has a bright future ahead of him.
First five-eighth is a position that has a bit of uncertainty because Cruden has left for the Chiefs. Daniel Kirkpatrick has started for them before but has not been much of a difference-maker for them thus far. Tusi Pisi had an impressive World Cup, particularly with his kicking game, although he needs to learn to attack the line a bit more.
The most intriguing prospect is the electric Beauden Barrett. After impressing for Taranaki in both 15s and sevens, it will be interesting to see how he makes the jump to Super Rugby. He is incredibly fast with a great sidestep and a decent kicking boot. He can also line up on the wing and at fullback.
From midfield, the always-consistent Conrad Smith will be captaining the side for the first time. There are few more cerebral players in world rugby today. Around him are Taranaki man Jayden Hayward and former Crusader Tim Bateman—both men who get a fair share of line-breaks.
Back at his preferred position at fullback is Cory Jane. Joining him in the back three will probably be former Sevens players Julian Savea and Andre Taylor.
Taylor is a dangerous counter-attacker with finishing speed. Julian Savea was the IRB Under-20 player of the year in 2010 but has had an underachieving Super Rugby experience thus far. He has the size and speed to bulldoze his way to the try-line, but he has problems with his ball skills. Those can be solved with some proper coaching, and he could become a threat for the Hurricanes this season.
On paper, the Hurricanes are the least talented team in the New Zealand conference. But the young talent has a chance to prove themselves and could save Mark Hammett's hide if they can string together a winning season.
Maybe in a few years, this team can become formidable and take the Canes back to the final.